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CANNES 2021 Un Certain Regard

Arthur Harari • Director of Onoda – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle

"I wanted to make a film that was bigger than me, that was beyond me"

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- CANNES 2021: The French filmmaker explains the genesis of his extraordinary second feature, which was presented in the opening slot of the Un Certain Regard section

Arthur Harari  • Director of Onoda – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle
(© Georges Biard)

Having turned countless heads with his first full-length film Dark Inclusion [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Arthur Harari
film profile
]
, Arthur Harari has now launched himself into a distinctly unusual cinematic adventure for a French filmmaker: Onoda – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Arthur Harari
film profile
]
, which was presented in the opening slot of the Un Certain Regard sidebar - held within the 74th Cannes Film Festival - and which takes the form of a historical war film starring Japanese actors and spanning a 30-year time-frame.

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Cineuropa: What attracted you to this Japanese character and to this military and existentialist adventure film?
Arthur Harari: My love for adventures goes almost as far back as my childhood, to the taste I have for stories as a viewer and a reader. And I’ve always felt that great tales of adventure could lend themselves to existentialist dimensions, something which doesn’t only involve action, entertainment or exoticism, but which touches upon deeper, almost metaphysical issues. I came across this story and it felt like a calling, as if I were the adventurer, like those people who decide to go off and scale some slope of some mountain range, despite the fact that no-one or very few people had ever done it before in such circumstances. I saw several highly relatable elements in this subject-matter and in the person of Onoda, which also spoke to me on a very personal level: I felt an almost childlike determination to not let go of this thing that we’d promised to do, or that had been promised to us, or a belief, a kind of courage bordering on absurd. I’d never felt any particular urge to make a war film or a film with Japanese actors, but when I came across this story, I decided that I had to make it in Japanese with Japanese actors on an island.

How did you develop the timeline of the story, which spans 30 years?
My intuition at the outset was to tell the story chronologically: Onoda is young in Japan, then he’s trained up and sent to Lubang, and, little by little, he ages before our eyes. But we didn’t really follow through with this idea in the film because there’s the sense of some sort of full circle: it starts with Onoda as an old man, without us knowing who he is, and then a young Japanese man appears on screen, whom we don’t know either, and then we end up delving back into the past by way of a memory awakened by music. We came up with that idea through a mix of writing and editing, because I came to realise that a strict, linear approach wouldn’t allow me to portray the dizzying timeframe I was after; its magnitude, the mystery surrounding it… In order to fully live the experience with Onoda, at the beginning the audience shouldn’t really understand what he’s doing there and why he’s still there: that’s something they should work out as the story slowly unfolds.

We don’t cover too many years in the film. First, there’s 1945-1946: Onoda’s arrival on the island, his training, the way he unites the soldiers, how he resists and refuses to accept the end of the war, how he puts together a little team and reveals his mission. Then, there’s 1949-1950: how the group begins to fragment, the inner conflict, doubts and despair which take hold of some of them. Then, there’s a very lengthy ellipsis which takes us to 1969 and which works because we leave the two characters as if in a state of grace on the beach, at one with the island, having accepted the fact that their mission might last an indefinite amount of time: we feel a sort of closeness with them, which means we’re fine with leaving them for such a long time. When we see them again in 1969, they’ve aged, but they’re still in the same frame of mind: they still believe in the same thing, they’re still together. Lastly, we move forwards in something of an ellipsis to 1974, where their friendly, brotherly couple is unsettled by the arrival of a woman. One of them will eventually break, because things are becoming untenable: they’ve become ghosts, pariahs. So we only cover three time-periods, which isn’t very much for a story unfolding over 30 years, but it feels like 30 years because we’re with the main character for the whole time.

This film could be compared to the great classics and goes against current production trends which often favour simplicity and a fast-pace.
I tend to home in on works from the past because there’s more to learn from them and because you do have to watch the greats, even if you can’t live up to them. You have to find a balance between the excitement and the emulation which great works inspire, without allowing yourself to feel crushed by the feeling that they’re unsurpassable, or trying to imitate them or indulge in forced deference of any kind. The difficult thing is committing yourself to a certain continuum while trying to be modern and produce something new. The only thing I can vouch for is risk-taking, because that’s what’s really missing in French film. You have to risk losing something and falling on your face, and that risk is even greater when you place the bar high, otherwise you’re not risking very much. But there are a thousand different ways of taking risks, even with a 100-euro film. In this particular case, it was wanting to make a film that was bigger than me, that was beyond me.

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(Translated from French)

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