A few years back, SXSW made a big push into the sports world with their SXSports “track.” That included a series of speakers from the sports world and a whole bunch of sports film programming. SXSports faded away in the last year or two but it is officially back for 2018 (though they’ve dropped the catchy “SXSports” labeling and now just call it the “Sports Track”). Sports doesn’t have a huge footprint on the crowded landscape of Austin’s big festival, but what is here is pretty damned great.
One of the biggest sports tragedies in recent years and a story that was absolutely calling out for a awards-level docu is the tale of Chapecoense football club. This is the Brazilian pro soccer team that was all but wiped out in a plane crash in 2016 that claimed 71 lives including almost the full team, backroom staff, and a number of journalists. The details of the tragedy and the difficulties to rebuild are recounted in Jeff and Michael Zimbalist’s brilliant documentary Nossa Chape. The Zimbalist brothers have carved out a fantastic niche in the sports doc world with such films as The Two Escobars and Pelé: Birth of a Legend. They also directed the wonderful Brazilian music doc Favela Rising. So there was no one better suited to tackle this difficult tale. And tackle it they do with aplomb. The film is heartbreaking and inspiring in equal measures and exhibits a very mature sense of the complexities involved between the club, fans, wives of the victims, new player, and those who were spared from death. It’s a beautiful film that will hopefully get the awards push it deserves.
Dealing with a very different kind of tragedy, Nick Budabin’s Chi-Town takes a look at the epidemic of youth violence on the streets of Chicago via one charismatic basketballer looking to escape the fate so many of his peers suffer. Budabin started following 5’11” point guard Keifer Sykes when Sykes was still in high school and follows him through a very successful college career in Wisconsin and beyond. Sykes is constantly confronted by the violence outside his family home and Budabin devotes a good part of the film to the close friends who have been paralyzed or worse by gunshots. But ultimately Chi-Town succeeds by focusing so intimately on Sykes and allowing the viewer to really see the world through Sykes’s eyes.
Seeing the world from an athlete’s perspective is taken to the furthest measures in Finlay Pretsell’s David Millar documentary Time Trial. Millar is a British cyclist of great renown and Pretsell’s film aims to really understand the challenges Millar faces in a comeback year (after a lengthy doping suspension) by taking the viewer literally inside the professional peloton. This is a very experiential documentary with long shots of Millar and other cyclists as they suffer their ridiculously hard rides. The cinematography is a true marvel considering how difficult it must have been to get so much footage from the back of a motorbike a few feet away from hundreds of cyclists riding at full speed. It’s a total treat for any cycling fans who will love the cameos by other riders and surely learn more about what it’s really like to be a professional cyclist than they ever imagined.
Another documentary about the sometimes completely crazy-seeming commitment of elite athletes is Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer’s The Dawn Wall. This film chronicles the first ever ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall by legendary free climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. The 19-day ascent sets the backbone for the film but Lowell and Mortimer diverge liberally to tell Caldwell’s bizarre and incredible story in great detail. That story, which includes both being taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan and losing a finger in a carpentry accident, is fascinating and helps paint the picture of what kind of person would tackle such a seemingly impossible feat. But the real star of the show is the absolutely awesome cinematography shot literally hanging off El Capitan as Caldwell and Jorgeson suffer their way up. This is adventure documentary at it’s finest.