Onoda: an ambitious war film in 5 photos, with commentary by director Arthur Harari

Radical change of course for Arthur Harari! After Black Diamond, a French-speaking police drama, the director signs a war film that takes place on an island in the Philippines. And in Japanese language. An ambitious project and a second full-length and controlled feature film, presented at the opening of the Un Certain Regard section at the 74th Cannes Film Festival.

Adapted from a true story, Onoda returns to the incredible fate of a Japanese soldier sent to an island as World War II draws to a close, and who will spend 10,000 nights there. From his ambition to his challenges, through its Homeric duration, the director looks back on this adventure and comments on five photos.

AlloCiné: It is often said that it is more difficult to make a second film than a first. But you, you did not seek the easy way. How was this ambitious project born? Is this a feature film that you wanted to make your first before you changed your mind?
Arthur harari : No, it didn’t happen like that. Because when I discovered this story, the project for my first feature film was already underway. It was not turned yet, but it was launched.

I discovered the story and it was so obvious to me, like a movie project that I wanted to do right away, that the urge exceeded the calculation, the fact of wondering if it was complicated or not. It was a desire. But after that, I hadn’t made the first movie yet, so I wasn’t thinking about what to do next. I didn’t take it that way. It was really the desire to tell this thing, to make this film.

When you see it, you have the impression that “Onoda” belongs to this type of film that we no longer make today. Did that play out?
Not directly, no. I wouldn’t say that I said to myself “Ah, we’re going to get back to the way we used to make films before.” But I’m obsessed with things from the past, more than things from the present. The artistic forms that obsess me the most are those of the past, but it is also because there is a little more past than present, in quantity. (laughs) I’m interested in the present, but more like a sort of apparent piece of something that has much older roots. So maybe it comes from there.

But in reality, what interests me are things that have a timelessness, to which we cannot assign an era, a specificity. Something that resembles a kind of big bath, while being precise, singular, local. That we do not know when the film is dated and when the story it tells happened.

Did specific shapes from the past inspire “Onoda”?
There are plenty. Japanese films by Kenji Mizoguchi, Akira Kurosawa. Filipino films by Lino Brocka. Films by Samuel Fuller, Pierre Schoendoerffer, or even Deliverance by John Boorman.

We feel that you had to overcome several challenges with this film, but was there one more difficult than the others, whether it was the nature or the language barrier?
The one with which, at the start, I had no idea how it was going to be, what to do, the one that scared me the most, was the language. Not so much this barrier to communicate with the actors, but rather this kind of a little ghostly fear of not knowing until the end, and even beyond, if it plays well in the film.

Now I have the impression of hearing the melody and its accuracy. I hope so, anyway. But for a long time, I had this fear of never knowing because I don’t have Japanese ears. So I was afraid to delude myself that it wasn’t playing badly. But by dint of working, hearing them, communicating with them and being in contact with a Japanese translator, an interpreter all the time, until the end of post-production, I have the impression, at after a while, to have abandoned this kind of tension and that there aren’t really any barriers anymore.

That, in any case, what is done, what is said in the film, the sounds we hear there, I can feel them. I have the impression, by dint of work and time, to have acclimatized myself to this fear and that it is suddenly no longer a fear.


Arthur Harari (right) with his assistant director Yû Shibuya in Cannes

In a dialogue, it is said that improvisation and adaptation are keys for the main character. Was that also the case for you, on a film like this?
It all depends on what we call improvisation. There is improvisation all the time in the way of doing things, in the directing, in the way of figuring out how to play a scene, how to make it physical. We may be 4000% prepared – or try to ensure that we are as much as possible – this preparation, in all places whatsoever, is there to be able to allow us to be in a kind of availability, d ” be able to change your plans, anytime. When we are in the present of manufacturing.

And that’s improvisation. We don’t know exactly how we are going to succeed in doing what we want to do, even if we have cut everything and we say that the camera will be there, that it will go like that with the guy who will tell that to such and such moment. When people are there, when we do things, sometimes it doesn’t work. Often even. We must therefore adapt. And it’s the same for the actors: they were very prepared, they had their vision of things, of the character, of the scene. But there is a point where what happens requires that we drop something, because we don’t know how we’re going to get the note out.

The place where there is the most improvisation is in the editing for me. There we have everything. All the ingredients are there and you have to make the salad (laughs) And it does not work at all as we thought. It doesn’t taste like we thought, it doesn’t sound like we thought. So we’re going to put stuff in another place, we’re going to do things again, we’re going to make actors say things that they’ve never said, we’re going to turn around plans because we say to ourselves that we have to that we put the music at the beginning, which was not planned.

There is a form of improvisation there, but when you sharpen the tool – because you have a little more time in addition – the more it advances and the less it is improvised. The moment when ideas must come is the availability of manufacturing.

How long did it take to shoot and edit?
About three months of filming, and nine to ten months of editing.

Are you struggling to get to that rather epic duration of 2h45?
Oh no, it was rather difficult to spend less than 3 hours (laughs) The film was not intended to be that long. I thought it would be 2:20. But the rhythm of the film, the rhythm of the shots imposed a rather long duration, even if I did not want it to be contemplative – and I think besides that it is not. The first version of the edit was something like 3:35 and it was too long, we could see it. But there were also no bridges that did not work.

We had to find the right rhythm and we said to ourselves that 3 hours was not possible so we tried, but after a while it became organic. It came like that and the film ended up being that long. It all came a bit like what I was saying about the story, which imposed a certain number of risks and risk-taking or adventures: the pace of the film and its duration were what they had to be. the force of things.

I hope that the film provides a multiplicity of possibilities of abandonment of the viewer

Especially since the duration is justified by the fact that the story is spread over 30 years and that it is a question of this time which expands and the benchmarks that we lose.

The idea was to be with the characters. And in a mixture, permanently, of action and an interiority which takes more and more space, but never to be in a pure feeling, in sensations on the passing of time, on the vertigo. That it is always related to events of the narration, and to the present which mingles with vertigo which also becomes a vertigo on time, on the past. Something of the order of vertigo had to set in without being over-signified.

Interview by Maximilien Pierrette in Cannes on July 6, 2021


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