MIFF 22: Citizen Ashe Has Smarts, Lacks Power

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Historically, tennis has been a gentleman’s game, and there’s arguably no player who better personifies this philosophy than Arthur Ashe. Embodying this same spirit is a feature-length documentary about the late athlete and activist which, while fascinating and well-told, doesn’t quite do its subject justice.

Born in the former capital of the Confederacy and raised in the shadow of segregation, Ashe overcame socio-economic disadvantage to achieve a bold ambition he set himself in his youth: doing for tennis what Jackie Robinson did for baseball. On the court, he devoured opponents with an icy elegance and disarming modesty; off it, he was a polite yet passionate advocate for civil rights the world over. His relentlessness continued well into retirement, using his name and voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS – a disease which he himself contracted, with fatal consequences.

It’s quite fitting that Citizen Ashe (2021) should be screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Our city is, of course, home to the Australian Open, the Asia-Pacific’s premier tennis tournament; but it’s also the place where Ashe obtained his last ever Grand Slam title, winning the Men’s Doubles competition with Aussie player Tony Roche in January 1977. Additionally, its showing continues the Festival’s affinity with politically-minded sports documentaries, with previous examples including The Witches of the Orient (2021) and The Australian Dream (2019). That’s right – this is no mere tennis story.

Ashe’s sporting achievements have since been overshadowed by the likes of the Williams sisters and Roger Federer, so it’s not surprising that directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard have opted for a greater focus on the politics and social issues that shaped the athlete’s mindset. Insights are provided by the likes of Johnnie Ashe, who discusses his older brother’s upbringing in Montgomery, Alabama and his military service; and Harry Edwards, a former Black Panther who reflects on the tennis star’s passive approach to racism.

What’s most intriguing, and impressive, about Citizen Ashe is how Miller and Pollard tell their story. Fresh interviews with Edwards, Johnnie Ashe and others are woven together with archival video, and audio, of its subject appearing on current affairs programs and chat shows, all of which is expertly edited – to the point where the film negates the need for a dedicated narrator. At times, it’s almost as though Arthur Ashe is speaking directly to the viewer, his soundbites seemingly uttered with this very documentary in mind. And the ingenuity of the screenplay doesn’t end there.

Arthur Ashe’s younger brother, Johnnie is one of the talking heads in Citizen Ashe

Every good tale needs an adversary, and Ashe has one in Jimmy Connors. Having emerged on the tennis scene just as Ashe was reaching his peak, Connors appears to be everything that his counterpart isn’t, a man who’s strong, brash and loud – he’s widely recognised as one of the first “grunters” in the sport. Connors’ game-changing techniques contrast with the more traditional, tactical approach of his rival, making him the Connors is the James Hunt to Ashe’s Niki Lauda, or the John McEnroe to the other’s Bjorn Borg. So intriguing is this rivalry that it could be a fascinating movie or mini-series on its own.

The same could be said for the rest of the documentary, for that matter. Every aspect of Ashe’s extraordinary life – whether it be his childhood, his studies in California, his military service, his visit to Apartheid-era South Africa, his coaching of the American Davis Cup team, his relationship with John McEnroe, his marriage to Jeanne Moutoussamy, or his AIDS diagnosis – is worthy of the feature-length treatment. But instead, Citizen Ashe condenses it all into a 95-minute runtime. While this is a commendable feat, the film needs at least another half-hour to thoroughly study its namesake, and reflect upon his legacy.

As a result of its abbreviated duration, the tone of Citizen Ashe is somewhat remote. His many achievements and milestones are made to feel more like footnotes, never reaching the cathartic highs of other documentaries about the African-American experience, such as Summer of Soul (2021). And in being so emotionally distant, the picture never becomes the profound, moving tale that it ought to be, nor does the viewer feel compelled to emulate its central figure and become a better person – as was the case in The Australian Dream.

Much like the man himself, Citizen Ashe refrains from melodrama, telling its narrative with poise and intelligence. The documentary falters as a tribute to the professional athlete, for it is overly clinical in its delivery, though it does serve some purpose as a neat introduction to those who are unfamiliar with all that Arthur Ashe accomplished in his remarkable, all-too-short life.

Citizen Ashe is streaming on MIFF Play until Sunday, August 28.

MIFF ’21: Japan’s Volleyballers Get Their Due in The Witches of the Orient

History is littered with sporting dynasties – in basketball, Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls are often touted as one of the all-time greats; in rugby, it’s New Zealand’s fearsome All Blacks who reign supreme. Of equal significance to both is a group of female volleyballers from the East, whose exploits have sadly been underreported in recent years.

In the early 1960s, the world of women’s volleyball was dominated by the Nichibo Kaizuka team, consisting largely of textile workers from the outskirts of Osaka. Under the rigorous training regime of coach Hirofumi “The Demon” Diamatsu, this band of young women annihilated their domestic opponents, eventually being selected to represent Japan internationally against other, higher-ranked teams.

Diamatsu’s team would go on to be dubbed the “Oriental Witches” by the foreign press, owing to their athletic prowess and unparalleled succession of victories – 258, to be exact. This extraordinary feat saw the Japanese players become celebrities at home and abroad, inspiring cartoons, comics, and documentaries such as this one, albeit without the same levels of artistry and reflection.

The Witches of the Orient comes from French documentarian Julien Faraut, who three years ago examined the psyche of tennis player John McEnroe in another MIFF entry, In the Realm of Perfection. Much of Faraut’s narrative is composited of existing footage – including the aforementioned cartoons, plus material of the team competing in Eastern Europe – which is then paired with electronic music, an eclectic combination that leaves the viewer in a trance.

Perhaps the most mesmerising sequence of Witches is the archival film of the women training in Kaizuka. In this footage, coach Diamatsu can be seen relentlessly spiking balls at his players to ostensibly improve their return serve, forcing them to sprint and roll across the court until they are all but exhausted of energy. While Diamatsu’s arduous techniques are somewhat mortifying to witness, they do provide an indication as to why the Witches were so competitive.

Archival footage, such as the Gold Medal match at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, makes up a significant portion of The Witches of the Orient

Faraut’s story also draws upon interviews with Nichibo Kaizuka’s surviving members, who provide rare, exclusive access to their lives. The women never speak directly to the camera, instead providing voice-overs that are matched to their daily routines – the earliest example being Katsumi Chiba and her morning workout at a local gym – as well as a discussion between them over dinner.

There are some real gems offered in the ladies’ narration and B-roll of their activities. Yoshido Kanda speaks most candidly of all the former players, reflecting upon her status as a substitute player and why the women were so drawn to Diamatsu despite his gruelling nature; meanwhile, Yoko Tamura’s footage has a lifestyle to be envied, shown playing a game of memory with her grandchildren and watching volleyball anime with her family.

Although the narrative is transfixing, Witches would benefit from some tighter editing – the montages are too long at times, and there’s a sequence about the players’ nicknames that adds nothing to the story. There are some questionable stylistic choices too, with Faraut keeping a tight 4:3 frame throughout – even in contemporary settings – only to inexplicably transfer to a widescreen ratio in the third act.

Watching The Witches of the Orient, it’s difficult to fathom why their achievements have been so muted in contemporary media. The Nichibo Kaizuka story may not possess the drama or excitement of other sporting dynasties, but their winning streak is yet to be matched by any other volleyball team, as is the level of fame and fervour they generated overseas. Surely those facts alone are worth a place in sporting folklore.

Crafted with an element of idiosyncrasy, Julien Faraut’s The Witches of the Orient is a beguiling story about a group of women whose triumphs ought to be celebrated more. The openness and humility of the subjects is what charms most, though the mesmeric visuals play their part too.

The Witches of the Orient is currently streaming as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival on MIFF Play until August 22nd.