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British Shorts Berlin 2019
Matt Kay
Little Miss Sumo

Festival Screening / Documentary Special

Documentary / Animation / Experimental

Fri 18.1. 18:00 / Sputnik Kino 1

A female sumo wrestler fights against tradition and stigma to win her place in the ring.


Hi Matt, thanks for talking to TNC, you all set for British Shorts 2019?


No problem, thanks for the opportunity. Really looking forward to the festival and it’s my first time in Berlin. 


Any nerves ahead of the festival?


No nerves now but screening your work is always a little nerve-wracking so I’m sure I’ll have some on the night. 

How does it feel to be at the festival with Little Miss Sumo? 


It’s funny, you spend so long editing in a small, dark room with no windows and then suddenly it’s time to show it to the world. It’s still in a dark room with no windows but this time it’s a big one and there are much more people than in the edit suite! It’s an exciting part of the film’s journey. I love screenings and the chance to share something I feel is important with others who may not have come across the subject before. 


Tell me a little bit about Little Miss Sumo how did the film come about? 


I was going on holiday to Japan with some friends and decided to research some potential documentary ideas. Having a camera seems to allow you to go to places that are hard to access and so it’s a good excuse to discover new things, especially if you’re a nosey person like me! I was a fan of sumo wrestling and it has always struck me as strange that there were no female wrestlers. I started to look into why this is the case and the more I read the more I thought it is a story that needs to be told. 


How did you get introduced to Hiyori?


I contacted Hiyori’s University, Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto because it seemed like a progressive club with lots of history. Their sumo club is over 100 years old and is the only one in Japan that allowed women to train alongside men. They had 3 female wrestlers at the time and Hiyori was the youngest. I was drawn to her because she was from a small remote village in the mountains and studied Gender Studies to try and better understand why women were discriminated against in sumo. 


What was it about her story that interested you so much as a director?

Women are banned from professional sumo. They’re forbidden from entering the ring, which is considered a sacred space, and are said to contaminate it if they touch it. Women can wrestle at an amateur level but have to retire when they graduate from university, way before they reach their physical peak. 


All the wrestlers I met have an incredible amount of dedication and train 6 times a week. It amazed me that these women trained so hard when there is such an obvious barrier stopping them from being able to continue or wrestle as a career. It seemed like they could never truly realise their full potential which I thought was very poignant. 

"I believe filmmaking is nothing without collaboration."

I was inspired by Hiyori’s passion for sumo and her desire to try and help change this ancient rule and the situation for female sumo wrestlers. I wanted to document her journey as she progressed in the sport and learn more about her motivations for wrestling. And to see if she could fulfil her dreams, which were very ambitious. 


What was the biggest challenge you faced bringing Little Miss Sumo to life?


The biggest challenge was the language barrier. It meant I had to rely on my amazing local producers to translate for me as I filmed which was a new way of working for me. I wanted to let Hiyori tell her own story and lots of the documentary is observational. It was hard capturing some of these moments not knowing exactly what was going on and it meant I concentrated on other forms of expression much more, such as tone of voice and body language. 


Also, the sumo matches are extremely quick, averaging 7 seconds and so there’s no margin for error making it challenging to capture the action in a cinematic and beautiful way. 


Have you always been interested in filmmaking?


I’ve always loved cinema. I was lucky enough to watch lots of different types of films growing up. Initially, I wanted to be a scriptwriter and direct fiction films but when I started to travel more it opened my eyes to the possibilities of documentary. I remember shooting in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Egyptian Revolution and thinking how tricky it would be to recreate this for a fiction film. It was then that I decided to properly pursue documentary making. 


What feeds your creativity?


I try to make cinematic character-based documentaries involving social issues. The injustice in our world motivates me and people’s quest to help make things better. I’m inspired by people doing amazing things and being able to document that through film feeds my creativity, from the framing to the sound design.


As a filmmaker how important is the collaborative process for you?


I believe filmmaking is nothing without collaboration. There are so many elements involved I think you’d be silly not to work together for a common goal. 


Do you have any advice or tips for a fellow filmmaker?


Always pack spare batteries! I was filming with Hiyori over New Year at her family home in the mountains. It was -12 degrees and over a metre of thick snow. Hiyori wanted to go on a snow run and I needed all 6 batteries to capture it.  Because of the cold, the batteries only lasted about 15 minutes instead of an hour and a half so I was really grateful that I had pestered the rental company for the extra batteries! It proved vital to film that scene which turned out to be one of my favourites in the documentary. 


What are you currently working on?


I’m currently working on a feature documentary called The Sumo Supremes. It’s an expansion of Little Miss Sumo. As I have been filming the short, the issue of female sumo wrestling has really taken off. I’m following Hiyori and her teammates as well as the mayor of Takarazuka who is spearheading the campaign to try and lift the ban on women entering professional rings. The feature will also explore in more depth the history of female sumo wrestling and why they’re forbidden from sumo rings. 


And finally, what do you hope people will take away from this film?

The film is ultimately about a brave young woman chasing her dreams. I’d love for Hiyori’s story to inspire others and give hope that you can succeed no matter how hard the environment is around you. 

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