America’s twin obsessions with the movies and sports finds voice at the Tribeca Film Festival, particularly with its Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film series. With sports-topic films such as WIN WIN and SOUL SURFER making major waves at the theatrical box office, the commercial viability of the sports story remains a potent one. The films in the series offer a variety of pleasures, both visual and sensual.
FIRE IN BABYLON by Stevan Riley is a story of the success of the West Indies cricket teams of the 1970s and ’80s, who captured the world’s imagination with their boldness and daring. Told through the the reminiscences of former stars like Viv Richards, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding and interspersed with musical numbers, including a terrific tribute to Mr. Richards by the calypso singer King Short Shirt, the film demonstrates how success in sports can have an impact on not only the identification of specific players but for countries or regions as a whole.
In SPLINTERS by Adam Pesce, the focus is on a group of Papua New Guinea surfers as they prepare for an inaugural Western-style competition in Australia. The film not only negotiates the physically tasking training but also the impact on the lives of the competitors of tough economic conditions and unabated physical violence. Their triumph over these twin adversities, not to mention the challenges of rough seas and massive waves, is in the tradition of sports films as metaphors for the triumph of the will.
Overcoming a different set of challenges is at the heart of RENEE, a moving portrait of the life and career of professional tennis player Renee Richards. Born Richard Raskind, the accomplished surgeon made the controversial decision to transition from male to female, while still attempting to hit records in the rather conservative world of tennis. Directed by Eric Drath, the film offers an intimate portrait of Ms. Richards, now 76, at her upstate New York home, where she discusses her own personal odyssey and the effect that it had on her family, colleagues, the general public and the world of tennis.
Another intimate portrait is at the center of Jonathan Hock’s OFF THE REZ, about the last two high school seasons of the Umatilla Indian basketball player Shoni Schimmel. Her obvious command of the court and phenomenal physical prowess contrast with challenges in her home life, as delineated by her parents and their problems and eventual breakup. Shoni, like many athletes before her, channels the sheer joy of her athleticism as a way of combating the difficult realities of life and family. These similar life challenges are also dead center in German filmmaker Sebastian Deinhard’s KLITSCHKO, about the boxing brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, and in LIKE WATER, Pablo Croce’s hard-knuckled portrait of the Ultimate Fighting standout Anderson Silva.
The darkest view of sports among the Tribeca/ESPN films is CATCHING HELL by the Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE). Mr. Gibney’s subject is Steve Bartman, the infamous Chicago Cub outfielder whose awkward attempt to catch a foul ball was blamed for keeping the Cubs out of the World Series in 2003. The film illustrates the fanatic attachment of fans to their athletic superstars, an obsession that can be exhilarating but also has its dark side. The sheer enmity with which Bartman must now navigate the streets of his native Chicago, where he is physically accosted and verbally abused, is a dark reminder that sports appeal, to some degree, to our blood lust and our desire to celebrate the winner and despise the loser.