'The Big House': Film Review | Berlin 2018

They got game.

U.S.-based Japanese documentarian Kazuhiro Soda's latest observational project was co-directed with 16 others, including 14 students from University of Michigan.

No fewer than 17 directors worked on The Big House, a documentary portrait of Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium — the world's second-largest sports facility — which is itself a celebration of teamwork and collective endeavor. The offscreen MVP is New York-based Japanese filmmaker Kazuhiro Soda, credited as co-director, co-producer and chief editor, and who developed the project as part of a teaching engagement at University of Michigan. One of two Soda works to premiere during the period of the Berlinale, where it screened as part of the parallel Critics' Week section, this entertainingly cacophonous and teemingly busy affair is in every way a world away from his placidly contemplative Forum entry The Inland Sea.

Chiefly of interest for nonfiction festivals, The Big House — whose sprawling, hectic maximalism makes it less than ideally suited to small-screen exposure — could find a theatrical niche via one-off screenings in college towns and sports-oriented cities, of which the United States has no shortage. Indeed, The Big House works both as an observational chronicle of one particular stadium — and the myriad people who come there for work and play — and as an anthropological snapshot of the country in the febrile weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

Over the course of two game days, Soda and his collaborators benefit from what appears to be pretty much all-areas access, poking their hand-held cameras into public and private zones alike with lively curiosity. In contrast to, say, the institutional epics of Frederick Wiseman, shots and scenes tend to be brisk; there's no pretense at "fly on the wall" techniques: The filmmakers are often heard quizzing their subjects and even passing commentary ("wow! wow! ... oh, that's awesome!" yelps one director when chatting with a genial scalper.)

Given the sheer scale of Michigan Stadium, whose 107,601 capacity is only slightly less than the entire population of Ann Arbor itself (one of the games here actually crammed in a total of 111,846), it would seem very hard to make a dull film from such a remarkable social phenomenon. A temporary community assembles before our eyes over the course of a few hours only to disappear again with similar speed; the filmmakers are fascinated by bonding rituals and ceremonies among large groups, though they also have a keen eye for the eccentricity and charm of the individual (such as one particular scene-stealer who literally drums up cash with his percussion and patter.)

And while there's never much chance of digging particularly deep in what is effectively a university-produced film about a university property, this kaleidoscopic immersion yields considerable interest and insight. It's to the credit of Soda, the supervisor and editor, that for the most part The Big House feels like a coherent work assembled by a single pair of hands, rather than a bitty compendium cobbled together from disparate footage. Profitably alternating between frenetic, noisy sequences and calmer downtime segments, the film manages to maintain interest over the course of its two hours.

Visual flourishes are rare: A spectacular introductory shot taken via GoPro by a parachutist leaping out of an aircraft and landing on the pitch is frustratingly curtailed. And during the closing credits a remarkable time-lapse vista of the stadium filling up is likewise ill-advisedly truncated by a fade. Then again, Soda's documentaries to date (including Campaign, Mental and Peace) have tended to be straightforward, unapologetically rough-edged affairs.

Here, filming in his adopted country for the first time since 1996's fictional feature Freezing Sunlight, he seems newly energized by his subject and by the unusual pedagogical/collaborative nature of the project. Having previously only been known among a coterie of nonfiction enthusiasts and programmers, Soda could be on the verge of promotion to the bigger leagues.

Production companies: Laboratory X, The University of Michigan Department of Screen Arts and Cultures
Directors / Cinematographers: Kazuhiro Soda, Markus Nornes, Terri Sarris (with Vesal Stoakley, Sean Moore, Sarika Tyagi, V. Prasad, Britty Bonine  Alex Brenner, Catie DeWitt, Dylan Hancook, Daniel Kahn, Rachael Kerr, Audrey Meyers, Hannah Noel, Jacob Rich, Kevin Tocco)
Producer: Kazuhiro Soda, Markus Nornes, Terri Sarris
Editor: Kazuhiro Soda (with Sean Moore, Vesal Stoakley, Sarika Tyagi)
Venue: Berlin Critics' Week
Sales: Laboratory X, New York (kazsoda@gmail.com)
In English
No Rating, 122 minutes