Film

Scoring a try against gender barriers

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Sometimes a documentary can work like an adrenaline shot, boosting morale and charging the viewer with energy. “Liberty Fields — The Pioneers of Women’s Rugby” is such a vehicle.

Even though it’s a branded content short film sponsored by Guinness, “Liberty Fields” packs an amazing amount of sincerity and positivity into its 284-second running time, while proffering a small but remarkable window into the little-known world of women’s rugby in Japan.

The film tells the story of Liberty Fields, the first women’s rugby team in Japan, which formed in the late 1980s, and visits its players in the present day.

“I didn’t know anything about rugby to be honest, and this was my first time getting into a sports documentary,” says filmmaker Mackenzie Sheppard. “I never thought women’s rugby was a thing. I wasn’t a big fan of rugby to begin with, but I do enjoy watching sports and football, so I was keen to work on the project, to see what there was to discover.

“The point of making a documentary is to shoot something you don’t know much about, but (are) curious to find out (about).”

This is Sheppard’s second short documentary, after 2013’s “Oba-chan,” in which he filmed an 85-year-old woman living alone and tending to her farm every day with no outside help. In 2016, he won the young director award for short film at the Cannes Film Festival with “Man In Phone” — a cautionary fable about the modern obsession with digital devices.

Sheppard is Canadian, but he spent his childhood and adolescence in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese.

“I grew up just outside Nagoya, attended Nagoya Kokusai Gakuen until I was 17 and took off to go to university in Canada,” he says.

Sheppard is now based in Tokyo, and agreed to shoot “Liberty Fields” after learning that a separate team would be creating a 60-second TV commercial based on similar material, “and that my job would be to tell the longer, fortified version.”

Sheppard’s familiarity with the people, language and society of Japan made him an ideal choice to work on “Liberty Fields.”

“The women in the film are the sort of people I would see on the train everyday, but never paid much attention to,” he says. “But through working on the film, they challenged me to really see them. I know now that everyone has something to say, whether they’ve had a so-called boring life or not.

“Until I talked to these women, I would never have known that these ladies were rugby players.”

For this reason, Sheppard decided that befriending the women before the shoot would be crucial to making the documentary.

“It turned out that the (Liberty Fields team) former captain, Kishida, lived in my neighborhood,” says Sheppard. “She invited me over for tea and showed me boxes of old photos and told me a bit of her story.”

Noriko Kishida, who has been playing rugby for over four decades and is regarded as something of a deity in the world of women’s rugby, figures prominently in “Liberty Fields” — not just as the team’s former captain, but also as a spiritual cornerstone.

“(Kishida) pulled a lot of strings to get us old tapes and videos of the games,” Sheppard says. “You can really see how the ladies were in their younger days, scoring tries and fielding tackles and getting their teeth knocked out. It made me realize how intense rugby is.”

The former players were gathered on a rugby pitch one morning for filming.

“I approached the interview in a way that would be comfortable for them,” Sheppard says. “First, I talked to each of them solo, and then ultimately brought them together so they could talk about their past. They weren’t shy about talking about their personal struggles. They all seemed well-versed in each other’s stories, which was interesting because, in Japan, no one wants to create any trouble by being too open. This is why small talk is so valued here. But these ladies were really open.”

Sheppard says that, for him, the film was also a learning process.

“These women played rugby 25 to 30 years ago, and the time in their lives when they gave themselves to the game was quite short,” he says. “It’s a three-year dream. … It would be interesting to ask — could they have gone further, done more as female athletes?

“Of the women I interviewed, one became a referee and another one ran the (rugby) union. But for the other players, maybe the trade-off for having those three years of bliss was to leave and go back to their lives, working for their families and contributing to society? But then, athletes get this all the time, regardless of gender. Soccer players for example, get five to seven years, and that’s considered a long career.”

Sheppard says he feels the former players took lessons from the field and applied them to their own lives.

“If you’re on a rugby pitch tackling other people down, doing more physical activity than you’ve ever done in your life before or after, you don’t forget those lessons,” he says. “I got the feeling that these lessons affected their lives forever.”

For more details, and to watch “Liberty Fields,” visit www.mackshepp.com.