The Japanese media covers American football about as often as it covers American sumo — seldom to never. Few here play the game and not even a recent scandal involving an illegal tackle by a Nihon University player will change that.
So the upcoming release of “The Big House,” Kazuhiro Soda’s incisive, multifaceted documentary on the huge stadium that hosts University of Michigan football games, is something of a surprise. Soda, whose past documentaries have examined the absurdities of the Japanese election system (“Campaign,” 2007) and the struggles of a Japanese fishing community (“Oyster Factory,” 2015), confesses that he “didn’t even know the rules of football” before he started shooting “The Big House” in the fall of 2016.
Soda was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to teach a class on the practice and theory of “direct cinema” at the university with professors Markus Nornes and Terri Sarris. As developed by such pioneers as D.A. Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles in the late 1950s and ’60s, and since refined by many filmmakers, Soda included, direct cinema says no to narration, background music, interviews and other practices of the conventional documentary.
“The object is to minimize preconceptions — you don’t think a lot about what story you want to tell,” Soda explains. “Instead, you roll the camera and make discoveries.”
The Michigan stadium, nicknamed “The Big House” and officially accommodating 107,601 spectators — just shy of Ann Arbor’s entire population — struck Soda and his collaborators as a rich field for discoveries.
“It’s a microcosm of American society,” he says. From the start of the shoot, which concentrated primarily on the 2016 games Michigan played against Illinois and Wisconsin, “our motto was ‘Everything but the game itself.'”
The cameras of Soda and his credited 16 co-directors — 13 students and three professors — are able to film moments on the playing field, but most of the film deals with the people on the sidelines — from strenuously upbeat cheerleaders to a straight-faced boy selling candy bars outside the stadium. The film even features glimpses of the contentious 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign unfolding at the time, but most fans seem oblivious.
The filmmakers had access to every nook and cranny of the Big House, including the private locker of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the man responsible for getting those 100,000-plus fans the victories they’re rooting for.
“It was only possible because we were a university class; outsiders would never be able to do it,” says Soda. “Markus Nornes was able to get us permission from the athletic department, but why they gave us such unlimited access I still don’t know.”
Before deciding who would film what, Soda took his students to an early-season game and let them explore possible ideas.
“Usually I don’t believe in democracy in filmmaking,” he says with a grin, “but I gave them responsibility for shooting their own footage in their own way.”
The students reviewed and critiqued each other’s work regularly, with Soda giving his own comments as well.
“By the end of the semester we had come up with about 60 to 70 scenes,” he explains. “I put them together in one sequence and spent four months editing with three student assistants.”
The two-hour theatrical version of “The Big House” had its international premiere in February at the Berlin Film Festival — one of the world’s “Big Three” film festivals — and Soda was in attendance.
“That was our ambition from the beginning,” he says, “but I was a little skeptical we could do it” due to his student filmmakers’ inexperience. “Some of them had never handled a camera before joining the class.”
It was a pleasant surprise then to see the students slowly gain confidence, their cameras capturing scenes that pointed to larger societal themes, including America’s racial and class divides. In one sequence a young worker pushes a large steel refrigerator from an underground food service area onto an elevator, past milling fans on the ground level and up another elevator to a VIP box. It is, we see, filled with gourmet treats not found at the usual concession stand, but available to those able to afford a VIP box at $61,000 per week. It’s also hard not to notice that most of the food service workers are black, while the VIP section is white.
The Berlin audience, however, focused on something else: masses of fans decked out in blue and gold howling “The Victors,” the University of Michigan’s militaristic fight song, and the school marching band strutting in tight formation across the field.
“They compared (the film) to ‘Triumph of the Will,'” says Soda, referring to Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Some were also reminded, he adds with a smile, of “patriotic rallies in North Korea.”
Michigan football has evolved since this writer was a student at the university from 1967 to 1973. When I was a freshman the team had a 4-6 losing record and even the game with archrival Ohio State played to 40,000 empty seats. Now, Soda says, “the Big House is a magnet to keep the interest of the alumni,” one strong enough to draw them from around the world and keep them writing large checks to the university. Tickets for Michigan-Ohio State games are now gold, with one online site pricing the few remaining for the Nov. 24, 2018, match in Columbus between $400 and $800.
This support from football fans is vital to the economic health of the university.
“When you were a student there in the 1970s, the state of Michigan supplied about 80 percent of the university budget,” Soda tells me. “That’s now down to 16 percent. They have to earn the remainder themselves. The football program makes a big contribution.”
So to keep coffers filled, the show that “The Big House” captures so vividly must go on. Or as its cast of thousands might say, “Go Blue!”
“The Big House” hits cinemas nationwide on June 9. For more information, visit www.thebighouse-movie.com.