Back in 2019 DN spoke with filmmakers Visitor (AKA George Thomson and Lukas Schrank) about their music video Resolution, which followed a female sumo wrestler named Tuvsho and her desire to reach the heights of her male-dominated profession. Today we speak with Visitor again, this time about the documentary I am Tuvsho which evolved out of that earlier music video and offers an extended insight into the world of Tuvsho and her ongoing journey within the realm of female sumo wrestling. Much like Resolution, I am Tuvsho uses gorgeous cinematography to weave a stirring account of an impressive athlete that is emblematic of contrasting ideals. DN joined the co-directors for a revealing conversation about their committed approach to Tuvsho’s story, the evolution of the film post-Resolution and the equipment they opted for that would allow them to create a real and genuine document.
How you arrived at making I am Tuvsho?
The project originally started out as a music video for the band Safia. We’d gotten a bit bored of seeing the same kinds of music videos and wanted to see if we could convince the commissioner to shoot a mini-documentary to accompany the track, we were quite shocked when we won the pitch. After completing the music video we didn’t want to leave Tuvsho’s story there and decided to film her trip the following year to the Sumo World Championship in Osaka, Japan and turn the piece into a longer, twelve minute short film.
Contrast is also a key part of our creative process, in terms of aesthetics, themes and concepts.
What was it about Tuvsho that drew you to her as a potential subject of a documentary?
We’ve always had an interest in under-represented characters, and after reading an article about Tuvsho, we felt like it was a story waiting to be told. Contrast is also a key part of our creative process, in terms of aesthetics, themes and concepts. Everything about the world around Tuvsho seemed to be full of contrast, a female wrestler in a deeply patriarchal sport, an ancient Japanese tradition practised in the remote industrial city of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
How did you find the challenge of shooting in Mongolia? Did you or your crew have any familiarity with the country?
George had previously written a feature film that he went to shoot in Mongolia and had stayed good friends with the film’s producer Enkhtsag Damdinjav. During his last project, it had struck George that most films shot in Mongolia tend to focus on a pre-conceived image of the country, the steppe, the nomadic lifestyle of gers, shamans and eagle hunting, but Ulaanbaatar is a fascinating city that blends together karaoke bars, soviet apartment blocks and high-density ger housing.
How easy was it to reach out and contact Tuvsho? Was she on board from the start?
After reading about Tuvsho, we called Enkhtsag and within a day he had her on the other end of a call. She is softly spoken, almost shy but at the same time confident in her abilities as an athlete and is highly motivated to achieve great things in her sport. She put her trust in us at the outset and was the most generous host and collaborator during filming. She has the support of her whole family and they too were so warm and accommodating.
So much of what you’re capturing is on the fly and in the moment. What kit did you bring with you that would allow you to take that approach?
We didn’t want the equipment to get in the way of creating something that felt real and genuine. We needed to be mobile, flexible and unobtrusive. It felt like the most important thing was getting to the core of Tuvsho’s story and making her feel comfortable enough to share it with us, rather than spending lots of time with complicated camera and lighting setups.
The most important thing was getting to the core of Tuvsho’s story and making her feel comfortable enough to share it with us.
It was all shot on RED Weapon with vintage Nikon primes and almost 100% natural light. We were lucky to get the camera through Mongolian customs who seemed convinced we were trying to bring a real weapon into the country. Our Cinematographer David Rusanow didn’t have much luck with immigration control generally, and there was also a problem with his visa on departure. He ended up being unable to leave and stayed an extra two weeks days with Enkhtsag to sort it out.
From the creation of the music video through to the final edit on the documentary, how long had you been working on the film for?
After the initial push of getting the music video completed in a matter of weeks, the twelve minute documentary took a lot longer, almost three years, although most of this time was spent marinating the footage and thinking about what form the film could take.
Lukas lives in Melbourne and George in London so post-production was done in a blur of round-the-clock phone conversations to hit the music video deadline. The project went on hold for about a year and then filming in Osaka was interrupted by a set of major typhoons. Once we had all the footage we had a less intense period to work on the documentary and really find the story we wanted to tell.
And that process brought you to the film’s ending which, from what I’ve gathered, has proved to be a point of conversation around the film?
A lot of people ask us about the ending, and why it is left so open. Some people even get a little bit angry about it. The simple answer is that Tuvho’s story is just beginning, and, even though it was tempting, we didn’t think it was right to wrap the story up in a neat little bow. It would have been dishonest, and not at all true to life.
What can we expect next from Visitor and the two of you?
What’s next for us… we’ve both been spending too much time on commercial work so this year we’re going to focus on getting a feature film in production, we have a few scripts ready to go but have recently accepted that we’re going to have to get into making some proof of concept shorts to get them off the ground.