COVID-19 pandemic brings sport to a halt, but fans can look to documentaries for stories beyond the field

The allure of sports documentaries like The Last Dance and The Test lies in how the principal characters are not sanitised — they are people with flaws, who err during the course of their great sporting careers

Arun Janardhan May 17, 2020 10:02:17 IST
COVID-19 pandemic brings sport to a halt, but fans can look to documentaries for stories beyond the field

“No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game,” Michael Jordan says of his one-time opponent Isiah Thomas.

In the recently released documentary on basketball, The Last Dance, available on ESPN and Netflix, former Chicago Bulls player Jordan does not hide his dislike for the ex-Detroit Pistons point guard. But that’s not just it: in the 10-part series, of which some episodes have been aired, none of the people interviewed hide behind any form of political correctness.

With detailed footage from the 1997-98 National Basketball Association (NBA) season during which the Bulls attempted a sixth NBA title in eight years, and amid speculations about Jordan’s future in the team, The Last Dance goes as far back as Jordan’s childhood to build a story about the basketball legend. While he remains the film’s protagonist, Jordan is not shown as a symbol of perfection; in fact, he is occasionally portrayed as domineering, money-minded and ambitious, with a gambling problem.

At a time when international sport has come to a grinding halt — though German football Bundesliga is scheduled to start 16 May — sports documentaries are a substitute medium into a world that fans have missed. The Last Dance is only the latest of several gripping stories, from across the years, that take you beyond the field and into dressing rooms, homes and the personal space of larger-than-life sporting heroes.

The John Akii-Bua Story: An African Tragedy (2008) is about the Munich (1972) Olympic gold medal winner who was persecuted when he returned home to Idi Amin-ruled Uganda; The Dawn Wall (2017) is about Tommy Caldwell’s ascent of an over 3000-feett rock face in Yosemite, California; Diego Maradona (2019) focuses on the footballer’s troubled times in Napoli in the 1980s; The Test chronicles the Australian cricket team’s recovery from the 2018 ball tampering controversy; All or Nothing: Manchester City is about the Premier League football club’s 2017-18 season and Icarus (2017) highlights doping in cycling — these are just a few names in a wide gamut of offerings. Free Solo (2018), which is about Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb the El Capitan rope-less, won an Academy Award in 2019.

What makes these documentaries special? For one, they use raw, often unscripted footage across time to tell the story. Most of them pepper it with candid interviews. Some, like Maradona and The Test, are set in a specific time frame for greater focus. The principal characters are not sanitised — they are people with flaws, who err during the course of their great sporting careers.

“I spend a long time searching. My job is part detective, part journalist, part politician, part therapist, a bit of artist and filmmaker,” said Senna (the 2010 film on race driver Ayrton) director Asif Kapadia while promoting his film Maradona last year. “I like the idea of showing reality, and complexity that comes with reality. I find these characters edgy and not particularly likeable, much more interesting.”

In Napoli, Maradona was successful but also succumbed to temptations from the Italian town’s murky underworld. In The Dawn Wall, Caldwell admits to fighting depression and loneliness. Senna draws on the driver’s famed rivalry with Alain Prost. The Test shows an edgy disagreement between the team’s coach and captain, Justin Langer and Tim Paine respectively, during the Ashes. In The Last Dance, some interviewees call Jordan “an asshole”, “jerk” and someone who “can’t be a nice guy”.

All these films humanise people capable of superhuman feats in the sporting arena. Jordan, now thicker in the middle, and with a glass of whisky by his tableside, talks about his stormy relationship with the team’s general manager. Caldwell gets teary when speaking about his divorce, which in some ways catapults his desire to climb the mountain. In an archival scene from Maradona, the camera zooms in to the Argentinean’s face, showing fear.

“What makes Tommy a compelling subject is his ‘relatability’,” says The Dawn Wall co-director Josh Lowell. “He is not a stereotypical action superhero — handsome, unflappable, perfect... He wrestles with his choices like everyone does.”

Films made in India, on Indian sportspeople, unfortunately turn out to be fan odes or hagiographies, which do not ask uncomfortable questions or delve into controversial subjects. Sachin – A Billion Dreams (2017) glorifies a larger-than-life cricketing figure as the camera follows Tendulkar through his last year of playing international cricket. The mini series Roar of the Lion focuses on the return of MS Dhoni-led Chennai Super Kings to the Indian Premier League following a two-year ban without dissecting the subject of match fixing, which got them banned in the first place. Not surprisingly, the five-episode film, co-produced by the captain’s company Dhoni Entertainment, eulogises him and brushes everything else under the carpet.

“I was a Sachin fan but not an ardent Indian fan,” said A Billion Dreams director James Erskine in 2016 before the film’s release. “It’s good to have some distance because the man is so big. Sometimes it was good to be editing in London — only from a distance can you see such a tall figure in all his might and glory. Perspective is a key element in making a truly meaningful film.”

Last year’s Cricket Fever: Mumbai Indians was a more nuanced look into one of the IPL’s more successful teams and its management, but did not get any kind of a marketing push, leaving the Conde Nast Entertainment-produced film buried in distributor Netflix’s platform.

Making a documentary requires effort, time and a generous endowment. Sometimes the footage marinates over years before it becomes ready to be screened. The Last Dance was shot predominantly in 1997 when the crew was allowed to follow the Bulls and Jordan. Kapadia interviewed about 80 people, including Maradona for nine hours over four meetings for the film, that has footage from when the footballer was still coming up the ranks.

Only experienced climbers could film The Dawn Wall, always clipped into safety lines, moving around on ropes, carrying heavy camera equipment, and trying to position themselves to capture the action from different angles while staying safe. “Often, our director of photography, Brett Lowell, would be dangling from a rope, 1000 feet above the ground and 50 feet away from the wall for six hours at a time in freezing temperatures and high winds, waiting for the one moment when the climbers might actually succeed on a hard pitch. (All the while) Dodging falling chunks of ice, trying not to drop any key equipment, and to make art at the same time,” says Lowell of the film that was produced by Red Bull Media House.

India’s top sport stars do not like to deal with tough questions, take a stand or show their vulnerable side. A film made here would need to choose — get access and show filtered content, or try an honest depiction but without much access. Interviewees tend to be politically correct, because the media is not as strong or independent here as the US, for example.

“Senna, at the time, and Prost hated each others’ guts,” said Kapadia. “Interview Prost now and he would say ‘we were great friends’. That’s boring. What’s the point of making a film about people who were great friends? The reason they were great was because they were competitive. You don’t become a world champion by being lovely. You become one by being brilliant and tough. So the drama is in that.”

“Tommy is an extremely honest and forthright person,” says Lowell over an email. “Through years of collaboration, even before The Dawn Wall, we had built a strong personal connection with him, and he trusted us completely to tell his story. He didn’t set any conditions, and he wasn’t afraid to discuss the most painful aspects of his life. Certainly not all documentary subjects are as easy to work with... One thing audiences have responded to so powerfully in the film is Tommy’s message that ‘we are capable of so much more than we realise’.”

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