Category: Sport on Film

Mercenary (Mercenaire, France 2016)

Soane (Toki Pilioko) and his younger brother on his home island

Soane (Toki Pilioko) and his younger brother on his home island

Mercenaire is the first fiction feature by writer-director Sacha Wolff. While it isn’t anything very unusual in terms of narrative structure or presentation, it scores heavily in introducing a new world for many filmgoers. This is a family drama and sports drama set in the context of post-colonial/neo-colonial French society. The central character Soane is an 18 year-old living in the Wallis Islands, an ‘overseas collectivity’ of France often considered to be part of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. One day he is spotted playing rugby (union) by ‘Abraham’, an agent who plans to ‘sell’ him to a French semi-pro rugby team and thence to take 10% of what he earns. Soane isn’t sure about this arrangement but he needs to escape from his abusive father and he duly sets off for France. But when he arrives the French ‘collecting’ club decide he is too small (though to most of us, like many players from the islands, he seems like a colossus). All Soane can do is to seek out a cousin and join a more desperate club who pay him peanuts but also find him a part-time job. Now he has his father and Abraham (who paid for his airline ticket) as enemies while he struggles to make a new life. How will it all be resolved?

The two generic repertoires provide the narrative with some familiar elements, but there is enough different/unusual material to make this a worthwhile watch and the central performance by Toki Pilioko, a genuine Wallis Islander, is a standout. As the director points out in a Cineuropa interview, most people in France have little or no knowledge of New Caledonia. Soane is therefore treated as an immigrant and his teammates assume he is a Maori and call him an ‘All Black’ (a New Zealand international rugby player). Because of French colonial policy, New Caledonia is part of Metropolitan France and Soane speaks French. He does find himself in a multinational team however. One of the pros is a 35 year-old Georgian, forced to keep playing in the fourth tier (?) of French rugby in order to send money home. These ‘imports’ are treated very badly – paid little and forced to take illegal supplements to add weight and muscle. In a sense they are treated like cattle, similarly pumped with drugs. One ironic consequence of bringing in islanders to act as beefy props is that Soane appreciates one of the local young women who hangs round the team. She sees herself as a ‘fatty’, but Soane thinks she’s beautiful.

I think the family drama is there to broaden the appeal of the sports drama. It is interesting as a narrative but I would have liked a bit more about semi-pro rugby as a business and a culture. The hot bed for rugby in France is the South-West and that’s where the film seems to be set. There is also a semi-pro rugby league structure in the region and I wonder whether this has the same problems with exploitation of islanders. Rugby league in the UK has recruited players from the islands (Fiji, Samoa, Tonga) and I don’t know if they are subject to the same kinds of racist colonialist attitudes. Most Pacific Islanders join teams in Australia or New Zealand and that is another story, beyond my knowledge. Sacha Wolff in his interview says he doesn’t know any other rugby films. Someone should introduce him to This Sporting Life (UK 1963), Lindsay Anderson’s classic British film in which a young miner (Richard Harris) is recruited by the owner of a professional rugby league team precisely because he demonstrates ‘spirit and aggression’ – something Soane has to learn both on the field and off it. More sporting dramas around these kinds of stories would be welcome. I’m not sure if Mercenaire will get any kind of international distribution, but I would recommend it.

Original French trailer:

Excerpt dealing with Soane’s arrival in France (with English subs):

French TV clip with a report on the whole issue of recruiting Polynesians into French rugby.

Race (Canada-Germany-France 2016)

jesse-owens-race-movie-poster

This film is being distributed in the UK by Altitude Films and I saw it as a Vue Cinema. You have to estimate the adverts and trailers if you do not want to sit through them. But when they are over there is a warning about the use of mobile phones, tablets and all the other electronic clutter. Then the feature  begins. However, on this occasion, after the BBFC certification, (PG – infrequent racist language, mild bad language, sex references, violence), I found we were watching contemporary sports people! This was not recognition of the enduring legacy of Jesse Owens, the film’s subject, but some sort of promotion. This is another of those really bad ideas made easier by digital technology, the cinematic equivalent of those annoying trailers that television often runs over the end credits.

So, after a couple of minutes, we did actually get the movie, a biopic. The film starts in 1933 when Jesse Owens won a scholarship to Ohio State University. Apart from his physical prowess the early stages of the film present his personal life, including marriage to his partner Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) who has already born him a child. At the University there is a clear presentation of the racism that separates black students from white. Here we meet coach Larry Snyder full of aphorisms and nearly always hugging a bottle.

The film becomes more interesting when the spectre of the 1936 Berlin Olympics rises. In the USA, as elsewhere, there is a debate about a possible boycott because of the Nazi oppression, especially against Jews. The debate is dramatised through Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), for a boycott, and Avery Brundage, for participation. Avery Brundage journeys to Berlin where he meets Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. The Nazi leader agrees to ‘tone down’ their actions for the duration of the Olympics. So Jesse goes to Berlin and wins his four gold medals.

The US characters are generally well played though fairly conventional, Stephan Jones as James Cleveland Owens (his actual names) is credible as the  athlete and Jason Sudeikis’ coach is engaging and suitably liberal. The athlete/coach relationship is full of recognisable scenes and tropes: there is even a variation on the classic ‘I was made to run’ line. Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage brings a Machiavellian quality to his character and steals most of the scenes in which he plays. Barnaby Metshurat’s Goebbels is equally Machiavellian but also monosyllabic and malevolent. Carise Van Houten’s Riefenstahl is well done but bears little resemblance to the actual character.

Carise Van Houten as Riefenstahl

Carise Van Houten as Rifienstahl

Riefenstahl provides an angle to the script which makes much of the filming of the Olympics, though it is only infrequently reflexive. Riefenstahl also acts as an interpreter tween Brundage and Goebbels. These scenes are the closest that the film comes to addressing the political substance of this story. Predominately this is a sporting film, so the various obstacles  in Jesse’s path merely delay his triumph. There is a token appearance of a representative of the NAACP, which organisation supported a boycott. And when two US athlete who are Jewish are blocked by the Nazis, they still turn up and tell Jesse to win for ‘America’.

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl

The film does address the vicious racism in the USA. However, probably unintentionally, the racism of the Nazis tends to be balanced by this. There is a telling scene where Jesse and Ruth, even after his medal triumph, have to use the staff entrance when attending a celebratory banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. In neither case does the film address the actual nature of the racisms. The racist attitude of the crowd at a US college sporting occasion turns easily to cheers when Jesse wins. I doubt it was that simple.

The film is overall entertaining. There is a lot of CGI, but mostly well done if noticeable. The camera work and editing are generally fine, though at time parallel editing is somewhat clumsy. The Sight & Sound review notes that Owens was a life-ling Republican  who argued against the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is a logic of sorts in that view. The film was completed long enough ago to have a release in Canada in February this year. So there is no attempt to address the ironies of Olympic boycotts including the current one.

This Sporting Life (UK 1963)

This-Sporting-Life

This film, written by David Storey and directed by Lindsay Anderson, is one of the best films from (what is sometimes called) The British New Wave.

Partly filmed in West Yorkshire the film has a splendid performance by Richard Harris as Rugby League star Frank Machin. And opposite him is Rachel Roberts, equally fine as widow Margaret Hammond. The film is about about Machin’s career in a Yorkshire League club but also his doomed relationship with Margaret. The fine screenplay and acting is ably supported by the black and white cinematography of Denys Coop, the music of Robert Gerhard and (especially good) the editing by Peter Taylor.

Lindsay Anderson was a key member of the new-style cinema in the 1960s. He was also an influential writer and mentor. His film output never quite matched his talents, but with this film and the better-known If… (1968) he left two memorable films.

Karel Reisz, who produced the film, commented that it was

“the most completely achieved of the “new wave” films, because the most passionately felt and ambitious.” (In Never Apologise The Collected Writings of Lindsay Anderson, edited by Paul Ryan, Plexus 2004).

The ambition is apparent in the radical style of the film, most noticeable in the editing: the timeframe and structure of the narration approach the avant-garde. This is a film that shows most clearly the influence of the nouvelle vague on British film at this time.

There is a fine supporting cast, including Alan Badel, William Hartnell, Colin Blakely and Vanda Godsell. Whilst the film’s techniques are impressive, the drama is absorbing and moving. So the good news is that Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening it as part of their ‘reel films’ in 35mm on Saturday June 4th. The last time I saw the print it looked good (in 1.66:1), certainly better than the recent DCP transfer which did not serve the cinematography well, and which made some back projection fairly obvious.

GFF16 #11: Speed Sisters (Palestine-Canada-US-UK-Qatar-Denmark 2015)

The team (from left): Marah, Noor, Maysoon, Betty and Mona.

The team (from left): Marah, Noor, Maysoon, Betty and Mona.

I was eagerly looking forward to my last film and it didn’t disappoint. At a superficial glance Speed Sisters might look like something made for a sports channel on cable TV – but it is so much more than that. It’s actually a well-shot and well-edited 80 minutes which explores a whole range of issues about sport, gender and politics in one of the most difficult parts of the world to discuss any of the three. And it’s very entertaining. Motor racing is expensive so inevitably the five women at the centre of this film are all to some extent ‘middle-class’ but that doesn’t really matter. They all face the same kinds of problems that affect the mass of Palestinians on a daily basis – and it’s actually quite refreshing to see Palestinian women who can assert themselves without having to play the roles of ‘victims’.

Speed Sisters is the first feature-length documentary by the Lebanese-Canadian director Amber Fares and she does a great job. Her approach was risky – to follow five women over the course of a couple of years, hoping that there would be a worthwhile narrative to be constructed from the footage collected. In the final edit there are stories about four of the five women with one, Mona, rather fading into the background – though this is because she races more for fun than to be a ‘winner’ as such. The other four comprise the ‘team manager’ Maysoon whose journey takes her into marriage with a Jordanian driver and the three real competitors Betty, Noor and Marah.

The film works on several levels, all of them challenging in terms of stereotypical views of life on the West Bank. The young women are engaged in what is called ‘street racing’. But this is the West Bank with little space for sporting activity of any kind and restrictions on the use of roads and the general movement of people. This sport therefore becomes a time trial involving manoeuvring road cars around a complex ‘track’ marked out on a public square, market space etc. The women compete alongside the men but their times are recorded for a separate Women’s Championship. Each event involves three ’rounds’ with dozens of competitors. It is interesting that while the women are enthusiastically supported by the men who work on the cars, they still suffer from the authoritarian rule of the men in charge of the sport – who seem to make up their own rules as they go along. Maysoon, who runs her own shop in Jerusalem, attempts to protect her team from the worst decisions but they still have an impact.

Marah's father and brothers watch her race. Photo by Amber Fares.

Marah’s father and brothers watch her race. Photo by Amber Fares.

Noor struggles to remember the correct route around the traffic cones and is often disqualified. Marah is, I think, the youngest driver – and arguably the best and most committed – but also the one who suffers most because of the changing rules. She is in some ways the hero of the narrative, living in Jenin in the North and passionately supported by her dad, who runs his own dental technician business. Betty, Palestinian-Mexican, wealthy and glamorous is the media favourite. It’s good to see that while there is intense rivalry, the women still support each other. The racing scenes are exciting and there is a terrific soundtrack:

While living in the Middle East, I also discovered a thriving, vibrant independent music scene. I wanted the Speed Sisters soundtrack to highlight some of these talented artists. The soundtrack needed to be authentic, fresh and as diverse as the Middle East. (Amber Fares)

Any kind of social activity in Palestine is difficult. At one point the team is attacked by Israeli soldiers when they drive near the wall. There is also a section of the film which makes an important point about the occupation. Noor and Betty have the ‘right kind of number plate’ that allows them to travel between Palestine and Israel, passing through checkpoints. One day they offer to take Marah to see the sea. Marah has to walk through the extensive border controls, with their long caged walkways, to meet the others on the other side. She’s never see the sea before (Jenin is only a short drive from the sea). When she gets to splash in the sea, it’s obvious that it has a profound effect on her.

Speed Sisters is a wonderful film. It’s released by Dogwoof in the UK on 25th March with various preview screenings lined up for International Women’s Day on March 8th. Don’t miss it!

Informative Press Notes here.