Five Sport Documentaries to Check Out

Sport has been a subject of documentary since Edison’s and the Lumieres’ 1890s experiments. One of Edison’s first pieces is a boxing match between Mike Leonard and Jack Cushing. In the 1930s Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia showcased atheticism in the guise of propaganda. Today, ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has propelled sport documenatary to new popularity.

In no particular order below are five sport documentaries to check out.

When We Were Kings

When We Were Kings, directed by Leon Gast, chronicles the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974. The film captures Ali at his heights of skill and charm, and it captures the fans’ fervor of the event. Though financial issues kept the film in production for more than 20 years, that delay didn’t inhibit any of the film’s power when it was finally released in 1996.

The Endless Summer

Bruce Brown‘s The Endless Summer follows two 1960s surfers as they attempt to catch waves on coasts around the world: New Zealand, Tahiti, and South Africa, to name a few. The surf rock soundtrack offers an easy-going feel, and the voiceover narration provides light-hearted humor and fun in its wry observations on the surf, surfers, and local cultures.

Tokyo Olympiad

Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympaid is an Olympic achievement unto itself with its scale and length. Filmed during the 1964 Olympics, Ichikawa’s catalogue captures details grand and small, from entire races to anguished faces. The careful editing results in a musical composition that glides through the Olympic experience.

Murderball

Murderball offers an edge-of-your-seat look at wheelchair rugby and the competition between the U.S. and Canadian teams in the 2004 Paralympic Games. Players such as Mark Zupan and Scott Hogsett break down the stereotypes of sport, masculinity, and ability with brutal honesty and biting humor. The result is entertaining and uplifting.

Hoop Dreams

If you watch only one sport documentary, make it Steve James’s Hoop Dreams. The almost-three hour film follows two Chicago teens recruited to play ball in suburban high schools as they pursue their dreams to play pro ball. They face multiple obstacles along the way — financial and familial, physical and psychological — as they aim for spots on college and, later, NBA teams. The thrilling gameplay at the Illinois state championships is among some of the best shot and edited game footage in any sport documentary.

Should another title be on this list? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

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.

‘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.

‘Hoop Dreams’ Delivers Goose Bumps and a Good Story

A memorable sport documentary requires two things: goosebumps and a good story.

Hoop Dreams has both, in spades.

The story behind Hoop Dreams shows the power of long-term documentary making. The arc follows William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, from their entry into high school through their first year of college. As high school freshmen, both boys get recruited from Chicago city schools to play basketball for St. Joseph’s High School in suburban Westchester, IL, where NBA great Isiah Thomas got his start.

Both boys experience highs and lows during these periods as they pursue their hoop dreams of getting to the state championships, of landing a college scholarship, and ultimately of getting into the NBA. Gates has full tuition support, but he still faces issues with knee injuries and academic performance. Agee has only partial sponsorship, and because of financial struggles, he ends up back in a Chicago public high school.

But their stories focus more on just their dreams of playing pro ball. Both boys face pressures and challenges at home. Gates becomes a father to a baby girl, Alicia. Agee and his family face tough issues both at home and outside it. Father “Bo” Agee takes drugs, beats his wife, steals, and serves time. Both parents lose their jobs and struggle to get another. Violence in their neighborhood finds Agree and another family member held at gunpoint.

The goosebumps come from the competitions unfolding. Both boys play on teams that reach quarter final rounds, with tough competitors coming between them and the next bracket. Sometimes, the game comes down to that last free throw or that jump shot. Will he make it? Will he miss? (Please, please, don’t miss!)

Cast as the underdogs, Agee’s team, the Marshall Commandos, takes down two very tough teams during his senior year. After one tense game, the team realizes that it needs to prevent the other team from scoring for a brief period to secure a win. That moment when Agee waits out the timer courtside is almost as exciting as waiting for that free throw.

In the end both boys, now young men, earn scholarships to colleges. Gates signs with Marquette University in Milwaukee, while Agee signs with Mineral Area College in Missouri.

As Hoop Dreams shows in its almost three-hour run, the sport itself is never the full picture. The competition, the goose bumps, is just a small, albeit exciting, part. It is the story that shows what the sport really means, the dreams it inspires, and the reality in which it plays out.