Category: Sport on Film

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.

Creed (US 2015)

Sylevester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed discuss strategy and tactics in the ring!

Sylevester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed discuss strategy and tactics in the ring!

I chose to see Creed because I wanted to see an African-American film (not always easy in the UK outside London and a few key cities). I missed Fruitvale Station (which certainly didn’t have a wide release) from director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. I saw the original Rocky film starring Sylvester Stallone in 1976/7 but I don’t think I’ve seen any of the sequels. Creed sees the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s greatest ring competitor Apollo Creed trying to live up to his father’s name in the fight game. Creed has had a wide release in the UK, probably because of Stallone as actor, producer and co-writer – i.e. the Stallone factor gives distributors more confidence that the film will appeal beyond the Black British audience. I find this sad, but that’s the way the industry in the UK is. Even so, I was once again the only person in a 90 seat cinema. I like being on my own, but I do wonder how the cinema keeps going. Anyway, I had a great time. I’m glad I saw this in the cinema and I have to say I was surprised on several counts.

Creed has been widely discussed as a ‘reboot’ of the Rocky ‘franchise’. I’m not sure that knowing this is particularly helpful if you haven’t seen the previous films. My impression is that this is a much more sober/sensitive feature than much of Hollywood’s output while still adhering to the generic structure of the sports drama and particularly the boxing drama (boxing being one of the few American sports that has appeal outside North America). Ryan Coogler is a remarkable young director, here also responsible for the story with a co-writer’s credit for the script itself. The film is well-cast – more on that later – and brilliantly photographed by Maryse Alberti. Alberti has had a long career, much of it in TV and independent film productions. He was one of the cinematographers on the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings (1996) and on The Wrestler (2008) by Darren Aronofsky. I’m no expert on boxing but I’ve seen a few boxing films and Creed  convinces me with its fight sequences. Coogler elects to use a long take and sometimes long shot style familiar from arthouse/independent cinema and his editors Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver both worked with him on Fruitvale Station along with production designer Hannah Beachler. I’m sure if I looked, I could find more personnel who were on both films. Creed cost around $35 million but has already grossed $161 million worldwide. This demonstrates that a film can be a global hit without resorting to a fast-cutting ‘immersive’ style. Creed is 133 minutes and some have argued that it is ‘flabby’ and could be tightened. Ash Clarke in his very good Little White Lies review uses this term and suggests that part of the Rocky Balboa personal story could be cut. I don’t think that would be a good move, but I concede that a little tightening up in some sequences could trim off a few minutes from the running time. I have to say though that for me there was no flabbiness. Aesthetically, Creed works well. The music seemed fine as well. But what of the narrative?

Tessa Thompson as Bianca, congratulating Adonis

Tessa Thompson as Bianca, congratulating Adonis

I think an important issue might be whether Creed is an ‘African-American’ film in the sense that, to take polar extremes, a Tyler Perry or a Charles Burnett film might be so described? Or is this a mainstream genre American film that just happens to have an African-American central character and director? To some extent that depends on whether there is a genuine exploration of a specifically African-American cultural milieu. And this is possibly what makes Creed different. Professional sport, alongside popular music, has long offered opportunities for young Black people to make a decent living and achieve a public profile in both the Americas and Europe. Creed offers us a young Black boxer (Michael B. Jordan), two boxing gyms in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and a relationship for young Adonis Creed with a promising Black singer played by Tessa Thompson (recently seen in UK cinemas in a lead role in Dear White People and in a smaller supporting role in Selma). The sport/music combination is sometimes seen as a restrictive/constraining factor in terms of Black culture, limiting the range of opportunities and typing Black characters in particular ways. Creed partially avoids this charge by making Adonis a character who spends time as a youth in a wealthy home and who gets a good education followed by an executive job in the finance sector. When he ditches the job to follow his dream to be a boxer and goes to Philadelphia he is therefore a ‘different’ character to the other boxers he meets. The film is also interested in Stallone’s Rocky Balboa who must be tempted out of retirement to train Adonis (‘Donnie’) and when he has the big international fight, Donnie and Rocky travel to UK to fight ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan in Everton’s Goodison Park football stadium. My feeling was that the script didn’t attempt to type the fight as ‘black v. white’, though I was concerned that the Liverpool boxer was being typed as a working-class ‘Scally’ figure. Again, however, I think the script handled this well in the end. The ‘real’ pro boxer Tony Bellew plays Conlan and I thought the fight was credible. I’m guessing that the inspiration for this pairing was the recent history of Ricky Hatton’s fights in the US. By all accounts it was Stallone’s interest in Everton that located the fight on Merseyside. Some location footage of the stadium on a (football) match day helped the fight sequence feel genuine (though I was disappointed not to hear the Z-Cars theme and I’m sure someone was waving a Liverpool scarf).

Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Creed and I was impressed by Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and the way the script handled the relationship between the two. Tessa Thompson was also very good and it was a shame that her role was not explored a little more. One potential narrative about her career and tensions between Adonis and a group of musicians seemed to be cut off too soon. If there is a follow-up, her role and that of Phylicia Rashad as Apollo Creed’s wife and the woman who fostered Adonis Creed after he was placed in juvenile detention could be usefully developed. Overall this film has helped restore my faith in the potential of Hollywood genre movies and I’ll certainly seek out a follow-up if it is made.

Death of a Gentleman (UK 2015)

A scene from a 'proper' game of cricket – an image from the film's website: http://deathofagentlemanfilm.com

A scene from a ‘proper’ game of cricket – an image from the film’s website: http://deathofagentlemanfilm.com

This documentary is about corruption in the governing bodies that control international cricket. It was released in July – ironically in the middle of one of the most exciting of recent test series between England and Australia. Ostensibly setting out to discover if test cricket was dying in the face of commercial exploitation of shorter forms of the game, the filmmakers discovered a bigger story about corruption along the way.

The film’s release prompted several newspaper articles that explored the content of the film’s argument, three on the Guardian‘s website alone. Rather than repeat these, I intend to focus more on the film as an example of documentary. I should say first that I found the film fascinating and I learned a great deal. Having said that, I have some doubts about its status as a cinema documentary.

My first quibble is with the title. The suggestion is clear – cricket is a game meant to be played in a ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The implication is that this means that test cricket played in the correct manner is what cricket is all about. To emphasise this the film begins with a long shot of a rural cricket ground with a team in whites slowly taking to the field. BBC Test Match Special commentator Jonathan Agnew and West Indian legend Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’ and my hero) are wheeled out to explain this to camera. The film’s website even tells us that: “Death of a Gentleman is not a nostalgic look back at a sport that professionals played against amateurs while stopping for tea”. Fair enough, but the two main filmmakers don’t really see cricket in the way that I and many others do. Sam Collins is an Old Etonian and Jarrod Kimber describes himself as a “larrikin Aussie”. I’ve been watching/listening to cricket commentaries for a very long time and I know cricket is a game riven by conflicts between patrician public school boys (aka ‘gentlemen’), wealthy entrepreneurs and professional players and that for much of its history it has been cursed with colonial mentalities and the whiff of racist assumptions. The film rather glides over this and focuses on the dispute between the first two – between the public school ethos and the power of money. To be fair, however, the journalist Gideon Haigh’s contributions do slightly shift the argument.

As a film, I guess this is an ‘authored’ and therefore ‘performative’ documentary in the guise of investigative reporting. The two filmmakers are the central characters who travel between Australia, the UK, India, Sri Lanka and the UAE first looking for an answer to their question about test cricket and then investigating the murky goings-on of the International Cricket Council. As a ‘cinematic’ documentary there is not much to commend. The travels of our reporters are presented conventionally, intercut with talking heads of famous cricketers and administrators and archive footage of news reports and cricket coverage. Visually the film comes alive only when we get to India and the pair are suitably overawed by their experience of an IPL (Indian Premier League – 20:20) game. There wasn’t enough of this but I’m probably arguing for a different film that tries to understand cricket and its social history.

For film and media theorists/analysts what is most interesting about this film is that the filmmakers, perhaps accidentally, present us with a kind of perfect hero and two ‘over the top’ villains. I suspect a Hollywood scriptwriter might have struggled to invent these three. The ‘hero’ is Ed Cowan, a very personable young Australian who plays cricket in the ‘proper’ way and is consequently dropped by the Australian Cricket Authority because he doesn’t score fast enough for the one-day game. He is there at the beginning of the film to provide the story that illustrates why ‘faster’ versions of the game (20:20 and ODI) are damaging test cricket. He is soon overshadowed by the two super-villains – Giles Clarke, Chair of the (ECB) English Cricket Board and N Srinivasan President of the BCCI (Board of the Cricket Council of India) and later Chair of the ICC (International Cricket Council). I’m not going to go into the arguments presented in the film about how these two led international cricket down the ‘wrong road’ and in N. Srinivasan’s case became mired in corruption scandals. I’m more interested in how the institutional conventions of journalism and documentary practice ‘overdetermine’ the way in which the heroes and villains are represented, almost unconsciously. Collins and Kimber are shown arranging interviews with Clarke and Srinivasan. The two administrators, perhaps surprisingly, give interviews on camera and then act like politicians – spinning responses, refusing to answer certain questions etc. In the case of Srinivasan I’m not sure about how this has been edited but it gives the impression that Srinivasan is being deliberately evasive. He comes across, as the journalists say, as ‘inscrutable’. Clarke on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about being the bad guy. Some of the things he says are in themselves defensible – even if many would disagree with him – but he says them with such little grace and barely concealed contempt that some of the overall argument is lost. When a villain is so villainous in a documentary it does make you wonder if the whole thing is a set-up. Later Clarke will avoid the young men, calling them ‘idiots’.

The final confrontation – when Collins and Kimber travel to Dubai to try to discover what the International Cricket Council have got up to – is firmly within the ‘performative mode’. They themselves comment on this by introducing their ‘fake sheikh’ (a ruse often used to expose sporting scandals in the UK, where a reporter disguised as an Arab sheikh wears a microphone and camera beneath his robes to trap the bad guys. What is shocking is that despite the exposure of these senior administrators, nothing has really changed in world cricket, except that these two have kept their powerful roles with slightly different titles. Collins and Kimber have started a Campaign to Change Cricket with a public demonstration at the Oval Test on August 20th, a petition and more with details available on the website. The change is needed to stop the domination of world cricket by the representatives of India, England and Australia who have effectively marginalised the other seven Test Match countries and the larger group of associate members who need support to develop cricket in their countries. The three big players have the TV markets sewn up and they don’t want to share the spoils. As one of the interviewees points out, the real question is whether test cricket needs money to survive and grow or whether test cricket exists to make money for the interests who control it.

This film isn’t great cinema but it is a useful exposure of what is happening at the top of international cricket that raises important questions for all cricket lovers. You can still see it in selected cinemas (a list on the website) and once it is available on DVD it must surely be seen in every cricket clubhouse.

Foxcatcher (US 2014)

foxcatcher

I checked the posts and we have not reviewed this film, though we have posted on some of the other Academy Award Nominees. This is one of the better films in that selection. Certainly better than Birdman, which won the Best Picture and Best Director Awards. Selma is also a better film and is better directed than the 2014 winner. A word of caution regarding Foxcatcher‘s marketing. I saw the UK trailer and thought ‘this is not my sort of movie’. However, a couple of regulars at my favourite cinema commended it. So I went and saw it: I am glad I followed their advice; the trailer is misleading.

The film explores the relationship between two brothers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing |Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) and John Eleuthère DuPont (Steve Carell), a member of the multi-million dollar entrepreneurial family. John wants to ‘coach’ a team of wrestlers for the US team for the 1988 Olympics. Mark and Dave have already won Olympic Gold Medals and are to be his stars. The film includes quite an amount of training for and participation in wrestling, including the 1998 Olympics in Seoul. However, the film is really about their relationships and about class in recent US society: not a focus that is that common in mainstream Hollywood films.

The film enters this world in a slightly tangential fashion: it took me about 25 minutes to get really interested in the film. But then it gets into the complexities of the US psyche, especially in terms of class and masculinity. It is not the usual ‘hard work pays off with sporting success’ common in sports films. But it does explore the motivation of participants and their backers in the in increasingly commercial worlds of international sport.

The acting by the central protagonists is convincing. Mark is for much of the film out his depth in the world of lauded over by the super-rich. Dave fails to see what is developing beneath the surface. Whilst John increasingly reveals the distorted personality that such an incestuously rich family can spawn. Steve Carell won the Best Supporting Actor Award from the Academy for his performance. And there is an extremely effective cameo by Vanessa Redgrave as his overpowering mother.

The film is ably directed by Bennett Millar, also Capote (2005). The cinematography by Grieg Fraser makes excellent use of the interiors, often containing the characters, and the landscapes provide ironically beautiful settings for this privileged world. As in Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Fraser’s use of colour emphasises the unspoken aspects of the relationships: shadows portend the darker stages of the film. Note though it was shot on celluloid but circulates in a 2K DCP: unfortunately some of the long shots lack definition. The sound track is excellent, with a fine balance between dialogue, noise and music: quite few of the recent films, including Birdman, seem to have a lack of balance between these inputs.

The film is based on actual people and events. I had a vague memory of these from the 1980s, but so little that the film was full of surprises as the story developed. I think it works better this way. Both as an increasingly riveting study and as a critical view of ‘America’, this film is to be recommended.