Dancers Compete for Ballet Careers in ‘First Position’

First Position (Bess Kargman, 2011) is an enjoyable documentary about several children who want to pursue careers in professional dance, specifically ballet. In First Position ballet is unquestionably a sport and these dancers athletes, and this documentary follows the classic competition-driven narrative arc.

First Position provides profiles of several dancers of various ages, with Aran and Gaya among the youngest and Rebecca and Joan among the oldest. All of these dancers train hard in preparation for not only the Grand Prix but also a hoped-for career in dance. Each one has strong support from family and from coaches and teachers.

The competition driving these youth is the Youth America Grand Prix, which provides opportunities for dancers to earn scholarships and recognition. We meet them during the semi-final stage, which occur in various locations around the world. At this stage the competition begins with multiple thousand and narrows down to a few hundred, with only 30 scholarships available in the finals. Not surprisingly, all of them make it to the final rounds.

The final rounds take place in New York City. We see a little bit of everyone’s performance, and cutaways to audience members’ faces offer those of us unfamiliar with ballet some indication of how they are doing. Those cutaways ease some of the tension that builds when the medal and scholarship winners are announced. Among all of them, only one fails to earn a medal or scholarship, though she lands a job a few months later.

I appreciated two things in particular about First Position. One is the overall positive tone of the documentary. Many documentaries engage their subjects and their advocacy from a position of deficit in that something needs to change, and the end result, while engaging, is still a downer. While the competition sounds fierce, this documentary attempts to maintain an overall positive and supportive tone. We hear nothing about jealous siblings or frustrated parents.

The other thing I appreciated is little more subtle. The opening shot shows someone preparing a stage for the dancers by sweeping it. No music plays, so all we hear is the squeaking of the shoes across the floor. Something about that silence and that simplicity drew me in.

‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’ Pays Tribute to Skateboarding History

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) is Stacy Peralta’s tribute and history to skateboarding and the Zephyr team of southern California during the 1970s. Situating the history within the Dogtown part of Los Angeles, this documentary traces the rise of the sport and this unique team.

Most of the storytelling occurs through interviews with the dozen members of the team, shop owners, and press. Each team member had his or her own style, but their styles collectively drew on moves used in the surfing culture. Instead of remaining standing while performing their moves, these skaters would touch the ground and remain low.

Not surprisingly, the skate culture also had an attitude about it. During a drought in the 1970s, these skaters honed their skills in drained swimming pools, which they drained and used without the owners’ permission. During the first revival contest in 1975, this team debuted their style, and in doing so they put their mark on the emerging national sport. Several of them went on to gain success through corporate partnerships, further competition, and their own product lines.

While Peralta directs this documentary, he also was a member of that team. Interviews with him as a talking head appear throughout the documentary, but they do not dominate the story. His interviews are integrated without comment to his director status, a move that some might find odd.

While the interviews and the archival footage make for a compelling story, the music throughout this piece is amazing: surf rock, classic rock, and even opera underscore the visuals throughout. The music licenses for this documentary must have cost a fortune.

One thing that could have been omitted from this piece was Sean Penn’s narration. The interviews themselves offer so much information and observation already that the voiceover felt like too much.

‘The Two Escobars’ Links Soccer and Drug Trafficking

The Two Escobars (Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist, 2010) develops an intriguing thesis: how drug trafficking bolstered the Colombian soccer team to new heights and resulted in the death of one of its greatest players.

The two Escobars profiled in this ESPN 30 for 30 documentary are Andrés Escobar and Pablo Escobar. Andrés Escobar was a Colombian soccer player who became part of the World Cup-qualifying team. Pablo Escobar was more notorious: He was a drug lord who earned billions trafficking cocaine to the U.S. and Europe. In order to legitimize his earnings, he laundered the money through soccer.

The Two Escobars entwines these two men’s narrative arcs through their rises and falls. With the infusion of money, the Colombian soccer teams flourished with strong players and excellent coaching, becoming points of pride for the Colombian people. Andrés Escobar eventually became team captain and one of the strongest defenders, along with other players rounding out the team. This documentary features interviews with several of the former players and the former coach, each giving insiders’ views. All of them hold a deep respect for Andrés.

While this documentary begins with the story with Andrés, it spends a significant amount of time on Pablo Escobar, using archival footage and interviews with his cousin, his former hitman, and a U.S. DEA director to provide the deeper picture. They set up why soccer became so important to the drug cartels, and they show the dangers of their influence. Referees, for example, were bribed to throw games, and Pablo himself had a referee killed for making his team lose.

Despite these undercurrents, the Colombian teams played intense matches before energetic crowds, as some of the exciting archival match footage shows. During one match against Argentina, the players and coach recount what happens during the game as the footage shows us the play. Winning 5-0, team qualifies for the World Cup.

Eventually, Pablo Escobar arranges for his own supposed imprisonment, but being in prison does not end his interest in soccer as he invites the players to play matches at his camp. Some players, including Andrés, feel uncomfortable about going. Ultimately, another drug cartel kills Pablo Escobar.

The Colombian team arrives in Los Angeles to play in the World Cup. The team wants to make its country proud, but early in play they seem off their game and they face threats going into the tournament. They lose to Romania in the first meet, and during the match with the United States, Andrés Escobar accidentally deflects the ball into their own goal, scoring a point for the U.S.

From the start the documentary hints about this moment and what it means, but now the threat is clear. Humiliated, Andrés Escobar returns home and tries to go about living a normal life. During one evening, he asks a few friends to go out, and they discourage him though he goes anyway. Later in the evening, he is shot and killed.

Even though the two stories about the The Two Escobars are not divided equally, this documentary still delivers on its intriguing thesis.

‘Bigger Stronger Faster’ Examines Steroids in Sport

Chris Bell’s Bigger Stronger Faster (2008) is a detailed exploration of the use of steroids in sports. In the process, Bell also explores the nature of American masculinity.

Bell begins this documentary by highlighting the muscled icons of the 1980s: Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Hulk Hogan. His questioning starts with the steroid use among himself and his brothers, who participate in strength-driven sports such as football, wrestling, and lifting. While Bell himself feels uncomfortable taking steroids, his brothers use them toward achieving their athletic goals.

From there, Bell serves as our guide as he raises questions about the uses and understandings of anabolic steroids. He interviews various experts about the panics surrounding the use of steroids and about the media’s perpetuation of that panic. He interviews others about the ethics of using steroids in sports, pointing out the contradictions in how they enhance performance and how many athletes use them even though it is commonly held that athletes should not use them.

From there, he delves into the larger question of performance enhancers in various aspects of life, such as Adderall and schools, and in aspects of business, in that performance enhancers are a multibillion-dollar industry that goes largely unregulated.

Throughout, Bell weaves in interviews with his brothers, mother, and father about steroid use. While many documentaries that use a personal voice tend to lean too heavily on that perspective, Bell manages to find just the right balance between the personal sides of these issues and the larger social questions.

‘Senna’ Keeps Pace with its Moving Story

Senna (Asif Kapadia, 2010) tells the story of Ayrton Senna’s racing career starting with his rise to fame in Formula 1 to his untimely death.

Senna jumps right into the story and keeps moving at a constant pace throughout this documentary. Kapadia draws on an amazing depth of archival footage to construct the narrative, including not only interviews and press conferences but also racing footage from television and on-car cameras. The racing footage itself is quite gripping, and the other footage aptly shows the tensions among the drivers, the teams, and the officials.

Kapadia makes an interesting choice in terms of bringing in talking heads. Instead of cutting away from the archival footage to someone sitting in an office or nice room, he includes them in voiceover only and identifies them by name on screen. This technique proves effective in this documentary in that it keeps us in the moment and it keeps the pace of the documentary moving. Talking heads are frequently the slowest part of a documentary after all.

The footage in the commentary shows a driver with a passion for the sport and a struggle to become part of Formula 1. Senna eventually goes on to win several world championships, but he is not without his rivals. He also is not without his controversies, including a six-month ban and $100,000 fine from one race. However, he did try to make the sport safer for all drivers.

Before Senna’s final race, a driver during the time trials crashes than leader dies. This man’s death, according to the voiceovers, made Senna nervous about the following race. The race itself begins with a small crash, and soon Senna takes the lead. The on-car camera shows us his perspective in the race as he zips around the corners. With a simple and sudden cut Karpadia moves us to a perspective outside the car, and we see it crash quite suddenly into wall. According to the doctor, the head injury was fatal. The on-car camera gives no indication that something is wrong, and only speculation follows with what actually happens.

Overall, I found Senna to be a well-done documentary that was engaging the watch even with the sad ending.

‘Buffalo Girls’ Follows Two Thai Girl Boxers

Todd Kellstein’s Buffalo Girls (2012) offers moments of hope but they do not overcome what otherwise seems a sad situation.

Buffalo Girls follows two of the 30,000 child boxers in Thailand. Stam and Pet are just under 10 years old, and both girls fight to help their families. For Stam she hopes to help her family with building their new house. Though she has a heart problem, Pet, too, fights to bring money home for her family.

Throughout this documentary we see the girls training, engaging in fights, and interacting with their families. The translator frequently asks them questions off-camera about what they like to do and how much money they make. These questions and their answers remind us just how young these girls really are.

While the boxing winnings bring some potential hope to these families, it is still sad to see such young children fighting and to see such exploitation of them. An interview with a referee raises questions about their safety, for he has seen many broken bones and other injuries. The girls also fight without headgear to protect them. What’s interesting is that the family members believe the girls’ fighting skills will prevent them from being injured.

The other part of the sadness here comes from the amount of money that changes hands. An interview with a bookie appears early in the documentary, and he reveals the system in place and claims he likes doing it for the money involved. The climax of this documentary is a bout between Pet and Stam that has a six-figure prize riding on it. The bookies will take home more money than the girls do.

This documentary does attempt some stylization in the fighting by reducing the noise during the bouts and then letting the noise explode between rounds, possibly to build the excitement. Fortunately, no commentary appears over the fight, but the heavy music segments, particularly early in the piece, felt a little out of place.

‘Pumping Iron’ Showcases Schwarzenegger before He Became the Governator

Before he was the Governator and before he was the Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was an award-winning professional body builder showcased in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron.

Directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore, Pumping Iron showcases Schwarzenegger and others competing in the Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe titles in South Africa. Not surprisingly, the documentary focuses mostly on Schwarzenegger, but also offers short profiles of Mike Katz, Ken Waller, Lou Ferrigno, and Franco Columbu. We see each of these men training, doing photo shoots, and of course competing.

I must admit this kind of competition proved a little harder to get into because it involves less movement than more high-intensity sports such as hockey or basketball. Bodybuilders are judged as if they are works of sculpture, and their competition involves various categories of posing, wherein they flex their muscles. The work for these competitions occurs in the gym, where they challenge themselves through lifting heavier and heavier weights, which we do see in multiple sequences throughout this documentary.

The documentary does try for some moments of levity, such as Schwarzenegger comparing weightlifting to orgasm, Waller stealing Katz’s shirt, and Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno bantering at the end. But these moments are fleeting in a documentary is otherwise slow in pace with the competition that feels anticlimactic. And with all of the awards already behind him, it comes as no surprise that Schwarzenegger wins.

Director George Butler also created Pumping Iron 2: The Women, which focused on female bodybuilders in competition.

10 Boxers Recount ‘Facing Ali’

Facing Ali (2009) was a great follow-up to When We Were Kings. Pete McCormack’s documentary features interviews 10 fighters who faced Ali in the ring throughout his career, including George Chuvalo, Sir Henry Cooper, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Leon Spinks, and Ernie Terrell.

Facing Ali is as much about Muhammad Ali as it is about these fighters, who appear in the order in which they fought Ali during his career. The documentary devotes an extended segment to each one, allowing them to share a little bit of their history, their upbringing and background, and their journey into fighting. George Chuvalo shares the tragedy of losing his wife and three of his children, for example. Others talk about their time in prison, while George Foreman shares the story of when he was saved.

Following their personal backgrounds, these fighters share their experiences with Ali both in and out of the ring. Archival footage of the fights shows highlights of their bouts. Not all of these fights show Ali as the victor or even the best fighter at the time. Sir Henry Cooper managed to knock Ali down in the early 1960s before a crowd of 40,000 people in Wembley Stadium. A couple of the fighters demonstrate their techniques to the camera.

In watching this after When We Were Kings, I was particularly interested in what George Foreman had to say about the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Foreman talks about thinking he would go into that ring and beat Ali in three rounds, and Chuvalo recalls how they were sure Ali would lose. Foreman describes the fight, but in particular he remembers the punch that Ali didn’t throw as he was going down. Instead, Ali held back. That gesture, for Foreman, is what makes Ali the greatest fighter in his mind. That respect for the fighter runs deep among all of them.

Facing Ali is well shot and edited, and it moves at a quick pace with deep, honest interviews that keep you interested and engaged. Even if you are not a fan of boxing, you still come to appreciate the one known as “the greatest” as a boxer and a man through these fighters’ recollections.

‘The Boxing Girls of Kabul’ Show Courage in and out of the Ring

The Boxing Girls of Kabul (Ariel Nasr, 2011) begins with grainy shots of a stadium where women in chadris receive lashes and another has a gun pointed to the back of her head. Fortunately, the documentary cuts before the trigger is pulled.

The startling footage sets the background for the dangers lurking for the girls participating in boxing training in Kabul. Under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, women and girls were prohibited from participating in sports, going to school, and even leaving their homes.

The situation remains highly unstable, but the first girls boxing team was established in February 2007 with the hope of showing the value of girls winning. The girls train under coach Sabir Sharifi, who was selected to participate in the 1984 Olympics, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prevented him from attending. Through interviews and observational footage, we learn about their situation.

The girls on the team face enormous obstacles. They train in a gymnasium that has no ring and little other equipment. They face pressures from family and society about the appropriateness of girls participating in sports. The pressures turn physical, such as acid attacks, lashes, and hangings in another province.

At the same time, they also receive support. Their coach encourages them every step of the way. Each fighter has a family member – mother or father, in particular – who offers unending support.

These young boxers are motivated to represent their country to show the world what Afghan girls can do. They participate in two out-of-country competitions during the documentary, and it quickly becomes clear just how much their lack of equipment and appropriate training hinders them.

As they appear in competitions, their names and their accomplishments appear in the local media, and people begin to recognize them. The threats become more palpable: Their coach is confronted on the street, and the girls face threats of kidnapping. Their families are judged as well. Some girls stop participating, while others continue despite the risks.

The Boxing Girls of Kabul shares themes with Afghan Star, which is about the Afghan version of the Idol franchise and the roles women play within it. There, too, the female competitors receive some private support, but they also experience public detractions and even threats to their lives. Either way, you have to admire their courage under such tenuous conditions.

‘Tokyo Olympiad’ Offers an Epic Spectacle

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad (1965) is an epic spectacle of the 1964 Olympic games that celebrates the coming together of humanity within this sporting event in peace.

Ichikawa structures this spectacle from the running of the torch to the closing ceremonies. The documentary celebrates the individual within the collective without focusing on the person. His cinematography shows the athletes and their performances, but we learn very little about the athletes themselves, aside from one man from Chad and another woman who hugs her fiancé after winning the gold.

Within the arc, this documentary focuses on select events, usually in their final competitions. For the 100-meter dash, we see the men running in what feels like slow-motion through a vacuum. No external sound detracts from them. The slow motion effect belies the fact that the race ended within 10 seconds. The slow-motion technique appears in other events, such as the pole vault.

Other events show each competitor as he or she prepares. With the men’s and women’s shotput, the camera closely focuses on their facial expressions as they prepare in their minds for the throw.

While many events are shown without commentary, a voiceover sometimes accompanies other events by describing the weather, people’s actions, and of course the competition as it unfolds. For the 10,000-meter dash, the voiceover turns into a sports commentator, describing who keeps taking the lead throughout the race.

Ichikawa uses a range of framing to represent these different events and the event of the Olympics itself. Extreme close-ups show muscles in the arms and legs, or they show the eyes and teeth. Extreme wide shots capture all right lanes of a swimming pool from overhead so we can watch all the competitors in the race from start to finish. Medium shots focus on the athletes and their routines, such as one woman putting a lemon on her starting block before the race.

Other shots make less sense. As an American boxer walks away, the camera keeps him in frame. The boxer looks back at the camera not understanding what’s going on. Receiving no explanation, he keeps walking, and the camera, stationary, keeps recording.

In addition to the myriad uses of framing, this documentary incorporates great score that runs throughout. The score is often orchestral, but occasionally switches to light jazz times.

The year 1964 was the first time for Tokyo and for the Asian continent to host the Olympics. At the beginning of the documentary the narrator takes a moment to note how both East and West Germany compete together in these events though at the time the wall divided them. Overall, a deep sense of the significance of bringing people together in peace runs throughout this documentary.