Directors Eliot Rausch and Mackenzie Sheppard talk to LBB about bringing together two perspectives on the tough female pioneers of Japanese rugby for Guinness
As the Rugby World Cup approaches, Guinness has touched down with a new campaign that explores the toughness and togetherness of rugby. Liberty Fields tells the story of a pioneering group of women rugby players in Japan, who took to the muddy fields in the ‘80s as a means of escaping the constrictions of daily life and to find meaning in community.
The idea was developed by AMV BBDO and, unusually, there are two film executions (both produced by Stink Films). The 60-second hero film, directed by Eliot Rausch, is a cinematic re-telling of the players’ tales, which combines the careful composition of Japanese cinema and the rush of grainy verite filmmaking. The companion piece is a documentary, shot by Mackenzie Sheppard, in which the players look back on their experiences and come together to reminisce.
“It was really in tandem and it was pitched that way because of the limited budget and the small chance that we wouldn’t be able to construct the film and the magnitude of the film in the two or three days that the budget allotted. We brought on Mackenzie to achieve the longer version of the film and potentially extend the 60 in case we were missing pieces,” explains Eliot, who says that he and Mackenzie worked closely together in research and pre production.
For Mackenzie, who lives in Tokyo, the research process was particularly surprising. “Kishida-san, the captain, and the leader of the whole movement in Japan, actually lives just across the street from me in Tokyo,” he reveals. “It really made me think that even in a jam-packed city it’s easy for the faces and people around you to become like fast-moving-wallpaper. But everyone, even the little oba-chan on the street, has a story to tell.”
“I would never have thought these ladies were former rugby players. Which challenged me to clear my own false perceptions of people and the world around me and learn to see things with the ‘filter’ removed.”
Mackenzie visited Kishida-san several times ahead of the shoot – getting to know her and her teammates. Their conversations helped steer the direction of the documentary and allowed the production team to better plan for the kinds of stories that would likely emerge on film. Through the friendship with Kishida-san, they also unearthed boxes of archive material that she had kept over the years – winning tries, press conferences, travels to international matches. She also managed to persuade seven teammates, now aged between 50 and 70, to join her and Mackenzie for a whole day filming at various locations around Tokyo.
“The most memorable was filming them back at their home ground in Tamagawa,” he recalls. “You could sense the nostalgia and camaraderie of the ladies as they stood beside the old grass on which they used to play. They were very proud.”
From the off, the documentary sees the women talk about fairly difficult subjects, like experiencing sexual assault and having to fight against expectations. “These ladies were very open and frank,” says Mackenzie. “Each one of them had a specific testimony about how people perceived them during the time in which they were playing. They really ranged. From bosses who were rude and demeaning, to family expectations of them not being comfortable with rugby becoming a big part of their lives and distracting from normal family duties.”
While Mackenzie certainly had his own time constraints to deal with – he had just 800ft (about 20 minutes) of 16mm film to shoot the interview elements – Eliot also faced intense time pressure. Not least telling such a rich set of stories in just 60 seconds. One solution was to borrow from the greats of Japanese cinema and load each shot with carefully crafted metaphors and visual clues.
“From a narrative standpoint we were very intentional about how much metaphor and symbolism was buried into every scene. Even the geisha girls locked into the glass covering, these elements were intentional to very quickly evoke the narrative beats we were hoping to hit,” says Eliot. There’s also a deliberate contrast between the static shots of the first half of the spot and the loose, grainy camerawork of the explosive on-field action.
When both elements of the campaign come together, what emerges is something that feels timeless and true to the sensible and authentic approach that Guinness has taken in recent years. Whether its helping Welsh player Gareth Thomas talk about his experience coming out to his teammates or paying respect to the women players of Japan, when Guinness does approach anything we might euphemistically call an ‘issue’ or ‘purpose’, it’s handled with the let’s-get-on-with-it spirit of rugby.
That’s part of the reason that Eliot agreed to do the job. He’s been wary of brands exploiting the marginalised in the name of ‘purpose’. But this story, he quickly found out, was not that. “I’ve been hesitant the last couple of years with brands virtue signalling, jumping on some kind of fringe or marginalised group. The dangers around doing that have become much more severe – at first I was like, ‘are they jumping on a feminist train to check a box?’ So I was hesitant but then I realised it was much more than that. I was compelled with the rebellion of conformity but not for the sake of individuation or autonomy or self-expression as much as it was finding community and I thought that was really unique.”
And I’ve spoken to a couple of Japanese women who have found the film quite inspirational. Indeed editor Aika Miyake, who worked with Mackenzie on the documentary and spent hours poring through Kishida-san’s archive footage, says she found the project deeply resonant.
“It was such a pleasure to work on this film since the story was so close to my heart. I had always admired women from my mother’s generation, for persisting through hard times with such an optimistic attitude. I’d seen it in my own mother growing up,” says Aika. “Life isn’t always easy and this film carries an important message for women that we are much stronger than we let ourselves think. The women of Liberty Fields gave me courage and I hope the film does the same for people who see it.”