‘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.

Ali and Foreman Face off in ‘When We Were Kings’

When We Were Kings is a 1996 documentary about the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the famous bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. Though the rumble happened in 1974, the footage remained shelved for many years before it finally was edited into this final form. The result is an documentary captures a key moment in time in these fighters’ histories.

Leon Gast’s documentary follows three threads. The primary and most interesting one are the speculation and preparation going into the fight and the fight itself. The other two threads are a little less interesting. A second one is the political situation in Zaire in the country’s motivations for hosting the fight. The last and least interesting is the music concert that also was staged around the same time.

One thing I really appreciated about this documentary was how it really showcased the Lightning Lip. The footage of Ali shows him so animated, often talking smack about Foreman and throughout and building himself up at the same time. It is such a stark contrast to how he is now.

Even though Ali talked himself up, much speculation surrounded the event and predicted George Foreman’s win. Interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton give us some of the background into what people were thinking, namely that Ali was out of his league in this fight. Obviously, the outcome proved otherwise.

While I appreciated the music, the most exciting part of this documentary is the fight itself. When We Were Kings builds to that moment through press conferences and commentary about each fighter’s ability. Mailer and Plimpton share just how palpable the tension was in the stadium, and along with the commentator their observations offer a further layer of analysis of what’s happening in the ring. They show just how subtle and how sophisticated boxing can be, with the type of hook, jab, uppercut, and even patience that goes into a fight. No wonder Ali turned the sport into an art.

When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1996. The film is not a straightforward sport competition documentary, but that’s the part of the documentary that is the most interesting.

‘Murderball’ Takes Sport Documentary to New Levels

Murderball (2005) is directed by Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin. Murderball is another name for quad rugby, a global sport for quadriplegic players. At the time this documentary was made, the U.S. quad rugby team had dominated the global competition, until Canada defeated the team in 2002. This defeat sets up the deep rivalry between the two teams, and this documentary chronicles the road to the 2004 Athens Paralympics and culminates with them facing off.

Murderball also provides some great portraits of the players, and their families and friends. Each player on the team is a quadriplegic with differing levels of abilities. Many became quadriplegic following car accidents, though a couple overcame diseases. They players are honest, open, and humored about their recoveries and their moving on with life, such as in dating and sexual activity.

Mark Zupan is the primary player we follow throughout this documentary. He serves as the spokesman for the team, going to events to talk about the team and recruit players. Zupan seems larger than life, both aggressive and vulnerable at the same time, and interviews with his friends and family suggest his personality hasn’t changed much because of the accident.

Another major portrait is Joe Soares, a much-awarded player from the United States who goes on to coach the Canadian team. The documentary spends a decent amount of time focusing on the relationship he has with his son, which seems troubled at first but then improves after he has a heart attack.

The competition preparation moves the stories forward. The U.S. and Canada face off in a game that determines which one has the top seed going into the Paralympics. Within the last five seconds, Zupan scores to win that top spot for the U.S. team. At the Athens Paralympics, the two teams face off again, this time with Canada winning. Shapiro and Rubin make an interesting choice in representing this game with a rather mellow feel in that the sounds are muted, the music is or mellow, for the first couple periods. In the third period of play the game sounds appear again as the tension builds and ultimately Canada wins.

Overall, Murderball is a high-energy documentary with interesting people, great score, and intense competition story that grabs you and keeps you.

Catching the Perfect Wave in ‘The Endless Summer’

Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer is a classic surf documentary from 1964. In pursuit of an unending summer, two surfers travel the world looking to catch the greatest waves. Brown’s camera follows them on their journey, which takes them from Hawaii to California to the African continent to Australia and then to Tahiti.

Almost all of the visuals in The Endless Summer are of people catching waves, either riding them out or wiping out. Though we see the surfers mostly from a distance, Brown’s commentary keeps us right in with the action. Brown defines key terms, explains the different kinds of waves, reports the weather conditions, and in general spins the yarn for this tale.

But Brown is no ordinary narrator. He is not the omniscient narrator casting his observations with detachment and neutrality. Instead, he is goofy — for lack of a better word — in his narrating of this piece. Some of his comments border on dry humor. For example, one of the surfing locations is called “number three, right next to number two.”

Brown’s comments on Africa draw on cultural stereotypes while at the same time try to be humorous. In describing the people of Ghana, he says, “They came down to the beach with their kids and their lunch and still had both hands free.” Other comments are a little more pointed. After discussing the problems of sharks in the waters near South African shores, he says, “Sharks and porpoises have yet to integrate in South Africa.”

Another stereotype comes through the representation of women in this documentary. About an hour into the runtime, Brown begins to talk about women surfing in Hawaii. He notes that many women are accomplished surfers, but as he talks about the suit she wears and not her technique, the woman falls off her board. He returns to the subject of women when the surfers visit Australia, this time marveling at the bikinis they wear and letting the camera linger.

Accompanying this narration is a great soundtrack that consists primarily of surf rock, though the music changes to African drumming when they arrive in Ghana. No didgeridoos were heard when they visited Australia and New Zealand, however.

Ultimately, this documentary is about finding the perfect wave and the perfect conditions to surf it. The end credits even thank Neptune for making them.

‘GMO OMG’ adds little new to the GMO debates

Jeremy Seifert’s GMO OMG (2013) begins with his son’s interest in seeds and seed collecting. Taking his family on a journey of discovery, Seifert explores the issues surrounding GMO (genetically modified organisms) production, studies, labeling, and regulation. In part he wants to know why some Haitian farmers call GMO seeds “seeds of death,” while people in the United States remain uninformed about them, as a brief person-on-the-street survey shows.

GMO OMG offers little new information about the debates to those already familiar with them, but it does provide an overview of the issues and the major players for those seeking to learn more. Seifert’s documentary avoids delving too far into the science, which some may see as a shortcoming, but no documentary on this subject is going to placate all the vested interests.

As part of his journey, Seifert interviews a range of people, including farmers, journalists, scientists, and seed preservationists. The closing credits list people and companies who refused to talk with him for the documentary.

He attempts little gags with his children to involve them on his journey. He creates silly GMO goggles, and he runs with them through a field GMO-planted corn wearing HAZMAT suits. His children also stand outside retailers and restaurants holding a sign.

What did bother me, though, was how some of the newspaper headline montages highlighted issues without providing any contexts or information for them. One headline mentions the farmer suicides in India. That point seems too heavy just to flash by on a headline.

Another thing, and some might quibble with me on this point: If you’re dealing with a divisive issue and citing statistics, note your sources, and use primary ones, not secondary ones. GMO OMG features statistics throughout, such as “85% percent of all the corn grown in the United States is genetically modified.” Neither the title in the documentary nor the film’s associated website offers sources for the cited stats. Every stat tells its own story, and it’s important to know who is the teller, a point that even this documentary raises about GMO research.