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The Big House (The Big House)

— Leslie Raymond, Executive Director, Ann Arbor Film Festival



Ann Arbor, Michigan is the prototypical college town—a small city with a massive research university, a tradition of political radicalism and Michigan Stadium, the largest in the United States and the home of University of Michigan football. With a capacity of 107, 601 the entire population of Ann Arbor fits in the stadium, which fans affectionately call “The Big House.” Michigan football goes back to 1879, and is known for its distinctive winged helmet and its fight song “The Victors.” But this direct cinema documentary eschews gridiron grandeur to look closely at all the labor—from the cooks to the cops to the cleaners—that goes into hosting 100,000 people. Shot against the backdrop of the 2016 election and the rise of Donald Trump, it presents a microcosm of America by showing everything but the game.  

想田和弘 観察映画第8弾『The Big House』

Observational Film #8

2018, 119 minutes, Documentary

Official Selection: Berlin Critics' Week


"Rich and Wonderful"

— Dennis Vetter, Berlin Critics' Week

Background of the Project


The University of Michigan Department of Screen Arts and Cultures takes its position in one of the great liberal arts colleges. The presumption is that the best filmmakers know their history and the best historians have made films. To this end, some courses are team taught; this film emerged from one of these courses. The topic was “direct cinema,” the style of documentary that eschews narration, interviews, screenwriting and non-diegetic music. It is an approach that minimizes preparatory research and maximizes and openness to discovering during photography and editing. While historian Markus Nornes led sessions on the history and ethical dimensions of direct cinema, filmmakers Terri Sarris and Kazuhiro Soda guided students on the production side. The three professors and 13 students watched the classics of direct cinema, and brought the lessons of this history to their own filmmaking practice. 


The Michigan Athletic Department embraced the project and gave each filmmaker a pass that allowed them to freely roam the stadium. The team scouted the first football game of the season, looking for all the stories unfolding over the course of game day. Individuals and small groups claimed individual themes and shot footage over the subsequent three games. After every game, the project members gathered to screen raw footage and rough edits, debating aesthetic and ethical problems to refine their sequences. How does race figure into the spectacle of the Big House? How can the complex issue of money be adequately explored in a style that rejects narration and interviews? The election loomed over the football season, but does it belong in the film? 


Each individual and small group edited their own sequence, and these were compiled to a first cut that was nearly four hours long. It was at this point that internationally celebrated director Kazuhiro Soda—who specializes in direct cinema documentaries—took over editing and brought the film to its present length. 

Produced and Directed by

Kazuhiro Soda  Markus Nornes  Terri Sarris

Directed by

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

Edited by

Kazuhiro Soda

Assistant Editors

Sean Moore  Vesal Stoakley  Sarika Tyagi

Directors' Statement


The poster design for The Big House may seem cryptic upon first glance, but it says a lot about our project.


Seen from space, Michigan Stadium would appear a board game—one where all manner of competitions come into play, with both winners and losers. Or an empty vessel waiting to be filled with a city’s worth of humanity. At ground level, the gentle bowl of people—most wearing the same color combination (and skin color)—overwhelms with the visual and aural spectacle The Big House is famous for.


That has to do with the immersion in sameness, the massive vibration that runs through the crowd as it tunes into the rhythms of the football competition. Our film offers moments of such immersion and its accompanying pleasures. But it also points the audience towards subtle and decisive moments of difference. Sometimes this is merely a visual pattern, or an aural punctuation; other times it has to do with the dynamic of the seen and unseen, celebrity and anonymity, haves and have-nots, cultures of war and of nationalism—and simultaneously the attraction to and escape from all of this.


Put another way, The Big House is America.

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