In its eighth and ultimately most-attended year, the Milwaukee Film Festival in 2016 presented Sportsball!, a new category comprising six feature-length documentaries that aimed to – in the words of its mission statement – "put audiences in the moment of an amazing achievement, tell the story of the athlete making the achievement, or give you a perspective on sports that previously you never realized existed."
Incontrovertibly, the inaugural batch of sporting-life showcases succeeding in doing just that, with creative, inspiring and exciting movies that – for most of them – splendidly accomplished one of the following ambitions: told a little-known narrative that blew you away, turned a well-worn tale into a captivating new story, made you care about or see differently something you never really considered before, or happened to be introduced by flame-throwing Major League Baseball pitcher John Axford playfully hurling a projectile at Jonathan Jackson. (Full disclosure: OnMilwaukee was the program sponsor for the Sportsball! category.)
By the time the beloved former Brewer was chucking a t-shirt at the crouching Milwaukee Film artistic and executive director – Oct. 4, two nights before the 15-day festival came to a close, for those scoring at home – the whole, long, wonderful celebration and its hardworking legion of staff members and volunteers had grown giddy and somewhat-less sincerely cinephiliac.
That was just fine, because by the time Axford’s personally sponsored "Fastball," the highest-profile but lowest-risk flick of the lot, was shown, all of the previous choices had already graced our local screens, portrayed poignant and original plotlines, delighted viewers both inclined and indifferent to athletics and persuaded at least one ordinary sports writer to pretend he was approximately sophisticated and perhaps even a small bit artistically aware.
I saw each of the Sportsball! movies, took dutiful notes and, cinematically equipped with a fondness for "Friday Night Lights" and an inexplicable tolerance of "Summer Catch," felt vaguely qualified to rank this year’s selections. Regardless of any ranking, though, the Milwaukee Film Festival scored a touchdown for launching and supporting this excellent new program. It was a real home run! OK, sorry, I'm done.
Here we go.
1. Keepers of the Game
This beautifully shot and told 2016 documentary chronicling the history-making, culture-shocking, misogyny-beating and, ultimately, unbelievable championship-winning season of an all-Native girls lacrosse squad in upstate New York epitomized the underrated excellence of the Milwaukee Film Festival and exemplified all the qualities that make a great sports movie.
Fast-paced with in-your-face camerawork and pounding drumbeat music in the action-packed on-field scenes, the film slows down deftly off the field to convey the complex and touching stories of its female protagonists, both as fledgling players on the unfunded Salmon River High School lacrosse team and as progressive, identity-forming Native teenagers battling stereotypes and lack of support from their community on the reservation in the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory.
Even if they were no good at lacrosse, a powerfully inventive documentary could have been made about these trailblazing and adversity-conquering young women. Lacrosse was traditionally a sport only Native boys were allowed to play, and there was plenty of initial antagonism toward the girls (in fact, an argument could be made that the film’s main failing was in not following back up with the reservation’s males to see if they’d become more accepting by the end); several of the subjects had endured terrible tragedy in their personal lives, genuinely struggling to overcome it; and some of the most moving parts revolve around the girls’ journey – and that of their conventional, sagacious, originally opposed-but-eventually encouraging Clan Mother – toward a life balance of thriving through adolescence and modern life while still appreciating their heritage and maintaining their customs.
But, it turns out, they’re quite good at lacrosse, progressing from a 22-3 loss in their first game to winning the Sectional Championship and earning a parade from their community. The great fortune of director Judd Ehrlich to not only have a great story, but also a fairytale ending made "Keepers of the Game" the perfect Sportsball! film.
2. Free to Run
For most of us that jog along Milwaukee’s lakefront or down the Hank Aaron trail or on a track or the treadmill at the gym, running is something we do to stay healthy, look better or clear our heads. It’s a hobby that also helps our jeans fit better. It’s not something we do as a means of sensory-stimulating self-expression. Nor is it a method to fight establishment bigotry and achieve holistic freedom. And, though we may wear a brand-name performance shoe that costs too much, the majority of us aren’t particularly concerned with the corporatization of Big Running and we probably will never run a marathon or compete professionally.
But it’s for examining and revealing those less-relatable, and surely less-familiar, reasons that "Free to Run" really resonates with and refreshes its audience. The movie takes running – one of the more mundane, plodding forms of exercise – and gives it both deep insight and propulsive energy, a surprising vigor that manages to move multiple good stories forward within the overall narrative without trying to draw out some grandiose thematic conclusion. We learn plenty from the 2016 documentary about the little-known, relatively recent and ostensibly momentous history of running, but it doesn’t try to teach us something overtly significant or send a message about the meaning of the movement. It simply tells stories, through real people, and it’s compelling, informative and entertaining.
While it provides plenty of absorbing plotline – there are at least three distinct big ideas that could have been made into their own film – it forfeits some of those gains with a (perhaps intentional) lack of artistry. It’s a documentary about running, sure, which only offers so much mesmerizing direct source material; but the cinematography consists entirely of old race footage, newscasts and interviews with the – admittedly very quotable – subjects. There’s not a lot of visual effect in the film-making, save for some recurring scenes of a couple of glistening, half-naked archetypes jogging naturalistically through the woods. But the story is terrific, unexpectedly thought-provoking and well-explored; and anyway, we already know what running looks like.
3. Speed Sisters
Another film with a plotline most mainstream sports fans wouldn’t really care about – the Middle East’s first all-women street racing team – but which is crafted so well and contains characters so engaging that it’s impossible not to enjoy. The five women on the Palestinian motor circuit, competing as a team against the men but also very much individually against each other, take on roadblocks both literal (improvised makeshift courses, lack of resources) and figurative (cultural stereotypes and norms of sexism and societal conservatism) to do what they want and love to do: race cars fast.
Dynamic, badass and fun, Amber Fares’ 2015 doc is slick in its editing and production quality, with a fittingly head-banging soundtrack. Best of all, you feel like you really get to know Noor, Mona, Maysoon, Betty and Marah and you’re still cheering for them – as they move on with their lives, both on and off the track – even after the credits roll.
I reviewed "Speed Sisters" and you can read that write-up here.
Stream it? No, not yet available.
4. The Legend of Swee’ Pea
Lloyd "Swee’ Pea" Daniels was a hoops legend from the streetball courts of New York City. Considered one of the most promising prep prospects in the country – calling him a high schooler isn’t exactly accurate – and a likably charismatic but naively unprepared kid in the 1980s, Daniels was recruited to UNLV, though he soon developed a drug problem and was kicked off the team and out of the university after a 1987 arrest for buying crack cocaine. A few years later, he'd stayed clean enough to play a couple of seasons in the NBA (and carve out a serviceable role), but his substance use eventually recurred, leading to his premature – and hardly lucrative – exit from the league.
Many basketball fans have heard of "Swee’ Pea" and some know his background; most, however, would never imagine the complicated, painful, incredibly human but undeniably upsetting dimensions of Lloyd Daniels, the person. Director Benjamin May – who, along with producer Daniel Levin, was present for the screening I attended at the Downer Theatre on Oct. 3 and spoke to the ups and downs of the project – gave the legend of "Swee’ Pea" some much-needed depth and the man some visceral mortality, though he abandoned a certain level of compassion due to the difficulties of working with Daniels, a petulant but endearing subject.
Perhaps the exceedingly honest portrayal – May chose to include in the film the audio of numerous phone calls from Daniels asking, and sometimes rancorously demanding, compensation for his involvement – was needed to truly tell the subject’s story. It was uncomfortable at times, but eye-openingly enlightening and tear-jerkingly unvarnished, too. At the very least, it was a fresh sort of documentary, done differently and unapologetically.
Stream it? No, not yet available.
This was an Axford pick and it was easily the best-attended of the Sportsball! films I saw, packed with families and Little Leaguers and general baseball fans. Unfortunately, I just didn’t really care all that much about the origin of the fastball or how the pitch has evolved (it hasn’t really, except maybe a little bit faster) or who throws it (everyone, some faster than others). The movie was produced in association with Major League Baseball, and it had the lustrous sheen of something polished with league preferences and approval.
"Fastball" was fine, though, a well-made and mildly interesting story of the pitch, focusing on its history and significance in the game and obsessing over finding out who actually threw the fastest. It verges on overdramatic in its usage of scientists breathlessly writing on chalkboards to essentially demonstrate the velocity formula to compare speeds between different eras, as well as literary historians discussing the battle between the pitcher and the batter ("one man with a rock, one with a stick") and the supposed mysteries and myths of the fastball. At one point, I wrote in the margin of my notes after one particularly shoulder-shrugging scene of some ex-ballplayers nattering about fastballs, "dumb," which ineloquently but accurately conveyed the overall sentiment.
It also felt strange to watch a documentary released in 2016 that featured not only Tony Gwynn and Ernie Banks, who died in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but also glorified as a menacing warrior Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman, who was suspended for 30 games this season in connection with an ugly domestic violence arrest in 2015. The filmmakers shot when they shot – obviously before the deaths and arrest of a few of the subjects – but it was still uncomfortable that no mention or notation was made of any of those recent events.
Nevertheless, kids seemed to really enjoy "Fastball," and it got loud applause from the audience. Afterwards, the always-gracious Axford stuck around a long time signing autographs, taking photos and chatting. A crowd pleaser, the man and, apparently, the movie, as well.
6. When We Were Kings
In celebration of its 20th anniversary and to honor the great Muhammad Ali, who died earlier this year, the Film Fest presented this Oscar-winning documentary. For those old enough to remember the Rumble in the Jungle, it was a nostalgic reminder of one of the most iconic events in sports history; for those unfamiliar with the fight, it told the story of an underdog Ali – on a comeback tour after having been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to serve in Vietnam – beating George Foreman in the championship match.
The documentary showcases the buildup to the fight, focusing on the racial and political views that made Ali such a transcendently important figure, and contains much of the actual bout. It was Ali’s quickness against Foreman’s power, and, ultimately, the former’s endurance defeated the latter’s exhaustion. Director Leon Gast needed 22 years to edit and finance the documentary before finally releasing it in 1996.
This ranking doesn’t represent the quality of "When We Were Kings," just that it was the only non-original selection screened by the Film Festival. But kudos and thanks for including such a worthy classic in the Sportsball! category.
Stream it? No, not yet available.
Milwaukee moviegoers, did you see any of the Sportsball! films? Which one(s) did you like best?
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.