The Challenges of Getting and Staying ‘In the Game’

Sport documentaries are one of the oldest and most popular genres of the form. Some of the earliest films recorded boxing matches, as the sport’s confined area and bright lighting paired well with camera capabilities at the time. Later documentaries highlighted the spectacles of athletes and their abilities. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) and Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) offer stunning footage in this regard. Competition and its narrative arc provide an almost natural structure for an exciting documentary about the game.

Many documentaries about sport chronicle individual athletes and their achievements. Consider the long list of documentaries about Muhammad Ali — When We Were Kings (1996), The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013), and I Am Ali (2014), among many others. Athletes’ struggles beyond competing recur thematically as well, such as in The Heart of the Game (2005) and, of course, Hoop Dreams (1994). Fewer documentaries address entire teams, and even when they do, they focus on a key player or two at most.

Women’s and girls’ sports remain underrepresented in sport documentaries. Many of these documentaries concentrate on individual athletes, and only a handful are about teams. Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team (2005) is one of the most popular. It features player bios with the competition the team faced while trying to win games, fans, and financial support. Kick Like a Girl (2008) is also about a soccer team, but this time a girls’ team that competes in the boys’ division.

With this background in mind, I was excited to check out In the Game, directed by Maria Finitzo. In the Game (2015) follows players and supporters of the girls’ soccer team at Thomas Kelly High School in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Finitzo documented their stories for several years, checking in on players’ lives both during and after high school.

The team faces challenges both on and off the field. One of the biggest? No field for practice or play. The girls drill in the hallway and in the gym — cramped spaces compared to the expansive soccer field. A well shot and edited match against Curie Metropolitan High School shows the team’s abilities. More so, it demonstrates the strong bond among the players and their coach. It is this bond, not the competition or the win, that drives In the Game.

Coach Stan Mietus approaches soccer as a uniting force, not a dividing one. While some coaches develop their strongest players and cut the less skilled ones, Mietus refuses to cut anyone and allows everyone a chance to play. Instead of the girls competing for top roster spots, they support and encourage each other throughout practices and games. “Each girl, she should feel so important. Without her, the team cannot go on,” Mietus said.

The girls at Thomas Kelly High School — where 83 percent of students identify as Hispanic — face challenges off the field as well. The high school endures budget cuts. About 86 percent of the students come from poverty, and the girls try to balance their education and soccer with work and family expectations. They hope to attend college. Not all of them even have familial support for playing soccer.

But the team and their coach help the girls stay focused and motivated. Team captain Elizabeth credits them for changing her work ethic, while another captain, Maria, credits the team for her staying in school. For Alicia, playing soccer puts her in the zone — “Once I start playing, everything just kind of fades away.”

Getting an education is a theme that runs throughout In the Game. Encouraged by her mother, Elizabeth sees college as an opportunity for better employment and a better life. Maria wins a prize for her house design, and dreams of owning her own architectural firm someday. Alicia dreams of a career in sports medicine. But so many obstacles block their way, and not just financial ones. All three find their way to college, but struggle to remain there in the face of pressures from home, money, and even their immigration statuses.

These girls take the team’s ethos with them and use it as a touchstone in life after high school graduation. Now young women, they want to give back to their team and their coach. Members attend the wake when their coach’s child is stillborn. They throw a surprise birthday party for him. Elizabeth even dreams of sponsoring the team in the future.

The editing of In the Game allows these highs and lows to flow without forcing an unnatural climax to the film. It brings together individual stories while leaving room for institutional critique — a delicate balance to find and maintain, and it is done well here.

In the Game does end on one high note, however, with the breaking ground of the new Kelly Park, which will have soccer and football fields and offer amenities for other community activities.

Overall, In the Game is a great contribution to the documentaries about girls’ team sports. It shows the importance a team can have in girls’ lives and it shows the foundation a good team and coach can provide, but at the same it does so with a realistic eye toward how hard it can be for some to get, grow from, and build on this positive experience.

The Ragged Edge: An Interview with Matt Sienkiewicz

The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story is a documentary about Erik Buell and the struggles of his company, Erik Buell Racing, which is the only American sport bike company. The documentary is directed by Joseph Sousa and Matt Sienkiewicz.

I had the privilege of seeing this film in a rough cut and later in the final piece. Matt Sienkiewicz took some time to answer a few of my questions about the film.

Documentary Site: Racing is such an exciting sport. How did you and your colleague find this great story?

Matt Sienkiewicz, The Ragged Edge: An American Comeback Story: We stumbled into the story a little bit. I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and my co-producer Joe Sousa was working for The History Channel on this short-lived show called Sliced. It was a strange concept. They’d use a diamond-bladed saw and cut through all sorts of objects, revealing, I suppose, something about their history?

In any case, one of the objects they cut open was a Buell motorcycle, and Joe got talking to Erik and Geoff May, the motorcycle racer. Joe was immediately grabbed by the story and asked if I’d take the 80-minute drive from Madison to East Troy to meet with Erik. I had a similar reaction. Erik was one of the most compelling people I’d ever met. He has a unique voice, a signature style.

And then I got to see the impact that the opening and closing of Buell had on East Troy. I talked to employees who spoke about working at Buell with such reverence and gratitude. You could feel their heartbreak when they told you what it was like the day they got shut down. I wanted to see them get back to work and to document it.

DS: What was your process for getting the footage from the Speed network? Was any of the racing footage your own? If so, what went into getting it? (The on-bike camera shots are particularly exciting.)

Matt Sienkiewicz: Speed said we could use it, charged a small fee. We did get some racing footage on our own, mostly just point, shoot, and whip pan stuff. It actually came out pretty well given our limited lenses and smallish cameras. The GoPro footage is really what makes those scenes work, though.

Documentary is a producer’s medium. The key was getting the race crew to trust us enough to pop that camera on the bike during a real race. We can thank Boyd Bruner, who appears throughout the film, for that footage. He attached the camera and turned it on. The rest takes care of itself.

DS: Similar stories of companies and their connections to small towns occur throughout Wisconsin. Companies have strong ties to the local communities and make efforts to support them. Did you see Erik Buell’s story as part of this narrative? Or, were you looking at other contexts? If so, in which ones did you see his story fitting and why?

Matt Sienkiewicz: There’s a very local story and much broader that coexists in the film.

At the local level, it’s about the ways in which capitalism, for all its flaws, can get it right. Buell didn’t help the local community by making donations or contributing in some external way. It did so by providing competitive wages, good work conditions, satisfying labor, and a sense of purpose. It was proof that a business doesn’t have to be heartless and that American can workers can produce some pretty awesome stuff when given the opportunity.

It’s a labor movie, but not necessarily in the way you’d expect. It argues that labor in a for-profit business does not need to be alienating and that a business can, under the right circumstances, enhance the life of a community.

Of course, the more global side of the story cuts against the happy local one. As practiced currently, our version of capitalism doesn’t have a lot of room for a responsible company that can very likely make a profit, but requires patience and long-term commitment. I’m confident that EBR (Erik’s new company) has the potential to become a profitable, stable enterprise.

But the investment world looks for faster turnover and greater margins. The idea of making a solid percentage on a long-term investment does not attract the kind of money EBR needs. So, the film is about how business can be a force for good, but today’s vision of capitalism won’t necessarily let it.

DS: Buell experiences a frustrating series of forward steps and setbacks throughout the film. How did those affect the overall editing of the film?

Matt Sienkiewicz: It was a roller coaster. When you start a documentary like this, you don’t know until the very end whether or not you have a story. It was heart-wrenching to see these employees lose their jobs, get them back, lose them again, get them back again, and now, at least for the time being, be in limbo. We had at least five different cuts of the film with different endings, some happier than others.

DS: Your previous production, Live from Bethlehem, involved very different filming circumstances. How was filming in small-town Midwest different? Any unique things you noticed filming there that you have not seen elsewhere?

Matt Sienkiewicz: Well, the language is quite a bit easier. The experiences of shooting the films weren’t as different as you might think, though. I’m a Jewish humanities professor from Boston. Neither a Palestinian newsroom nor and Wisconsin motorcycle factory is exactly my home turf. So both films involved both really trying to understand another culture and, crucially, proving to the locals that I was there to learn about them and represent them as fairly as possible. The Midwestern stereotype of niceness certainly rings true and stands in significant distinction to the Middle East, where people tend to call things like they see them a bit more. But once you get to know someone and they start to be comfortable with the camera, it just becomes a matter of having a conversation, which is a pretty cross-cultural past time.

DS: A rough cut of this film included a voiceover narration, yet it was eliminated in your final cut. Why did you make the decision to remove it?

Matt Sienkiewicz: We’ve done that on the last two films. Generally, voiceover is a crutch, used to hide the weakness in the visual aspects of the storytelling. Our goal is to allow people, as much as possible, to tell their own stories. It’s a bit of a lie of course Joe, Ethan Schwelling (our editor), and I are shaping the story at every turn, voiceover or no voiceover. But when we limit ourselves to what other people say and do, we find things feel more honest.

DS: Any follow-up on the film since its epilogue?

Matt Sienkiewicz: Actually, yes. Looks like EBR may well be back up and running soon enough. We’re about to take off that depressing epilogue. Here’s hoping.

Three Docs on Ice: Science, Spectacle, and Storytelling

Dena Seidel’s Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South recently became available on iTunes. Its topic and telling found me watching two other related documentaries: Chasing Ice and Encounters at the End of the World. All three address in part glaciers and climate change. What differs among them is their focuses on science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Science and the scientific process assume center stage in Antarctic Edge. Seidel’s documentary follows scientists taking a one-month boat trip along the Antarctic coast. They study climate change through penguins, humpback whales, krill, water, and of course ice. They study samples from the water and evaluate animals using very expensive and sensitive equipment.

Multiple experts explain their studies and their significance. Warmer temperatures mean habitat and food availability changes for penguins, for example. The scientists also explain the processes in conducting their studies. Animations visualize these processes.

While multiple experts appear, no one person becomes the forerunner, the “star.” All studies stand on equal footing in their representations.

Instead of starting with science, Chasing Ice begins with stunning ice spectacles. James Balog, photographer and founder the Extreme Ice Survey, believes that photography provides the “visible evidence” needed to show the impacts of climate change through the rapidly retreating glaciers.

Chasing Ice, directed by Jeff Orlowski, follows Balog’s passion and his study, which involves setting up cameras to capture glacial changes throughout Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and other places. We learn about Balog’s life, career, and obstacles alongside the challenges of the project, including rigging cameras to function within extreme weather conditions.

Both documentaries feature sequences of calving, where the ice breaks and falls into the ocean. In itself, calving might not sound interesting, until you realize the scale: Some of those ice chunks exceed twice the height of the Empire State Building.

Antarctic Edge shows some stunning glacial formations and calving, but they are traveling shots along the scientists’ journey. Chasing Ice, however, makes showing these spectacles and getting them on camera the focal point for highlighting climate change.

A massive calving becomes the climax of the film. Balog sends two scientists to watch a glacier for a month to see if it does anything. After three weeks of nothing spectacular, they record the largest calving event ever caught on camera. (Headphones are recommended for hearing the rumble that accompanies this event.)

While Antarctic Edge focuses on science and Chasing Ice focuses on spectacle, Encounters at the End of the World focuses on people and the human condition. I have written about this film before, but it is worth revisiting briefly here as it shows another approach to science, spectacle, and storytelling.

Funded by the National Science foundation and staunchly refusing to make a film about penguins, Werner Herzog visits Antarctica. While attracted to the natural beauty, Herzog ultimately is more interested people’s stories.

He does speak with scientists, such as a glaciologist who talks at length about ice dynamics and climate change. Other scientists explain the dynamics of the active volcano and penguin insanity. But he also speaks to the people driving trucks, raising plants, and doing maintenance who live and work as part of the community there.

The visuals in Encounters at the End of the World are stunning or utilitarian. The stunning include snowy landscapes, underwater seascapes, and volcanic formations. The more utilitarian show the base and its operations. But ultimately for Herzog, the bigger questions are not science and climate change, but the depressing question of humanity’s impending demise.