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Hot Docs 2023 #6: Athletic Achievements

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Hot Docs Film Festival

The thrill of competition, the pursuit of victory and the grit needed to succeed are just some of the reasons that documentaries about athletes make for absorbing viewing. Here are seven sports-related films screening at Hot Docs this year.

Aitamaako’tamisskapi Natosi: Before the Sun (7/8)
Its questionable name aside, the sport of “Indian Relay” (as it’s still known today) is super-dangerous, involving a rider “relaying” him- or herself from one horse to another in a high-speed multi-lap race around a track. It’s also a sport largely dominated by men, so director Banchi Hanuse wisely trains her lens on Logan Red Crow, a young Siksika Nation woman intent on breaking stereotypes — and kicking her competition’s collective behind in the process. Bored of traditional, less-exciting geared-to-women events such as barrel racing, and guided by the memory of her late equally strong grandmother, Logan pursues relay prowess, training with her supportive family at her side: her father and brother skillfully putting her (and the family’s thoroughbreds) through the paces, while her mother frequently shuttles Logan to and from events. The film follows Logan as she sets her sights on, and prepares for, the Championship Of Champions Indian Relay Races in Casper, Wyoming, and tries to manage the risks vs. the rewards associated with achieving her goals. Featuring beautiful cinematography and a wonderfully engaging cast, it’s a lovely film about family, tradition, empowerment, and bucking the system in pursuit of one’s passion.

Alllihopa: The Dalkurd Story (7/8)
When discussing this spirited, feel-good footballer doc from director Kordo Doski, comparisons to Ted Lasso will almost certainly be drawn. Heck, I drew them myself when I flagged this film as one of the Hot Docs titles I was most excited to check out this year. And, it turns out, those comparisons are totally fair because Doski strikes the same kind of narrative gold that made Lasso a worldwide phenomenon: an underdog team of hugely likeable players and coaches attempts to beat the odds and rise through their league’s ranks to prove all the naysayers wrong. In Allihopa’s case, it’s the titular squad in Sweden, founded by a Kurdish refugee and featuring many Kurdish-immigrant players, whose lives on and off the pitch are shaped by their experiences as immigrants and contextualized by the Kurdish people’s ongoing struggle to form an independent nation. Battling injuries, uncertainty, racism, skepticism and the final three do-or-die matches that will determine whether they join the premier Allsvensken division, Dalkurd sets its sights on victory and takes the viewer along for the high-stakes ride. The result is an incredibly entertaining, wonderfully suspenseful and totally satisfying could-not-have-been-scripted-better documentary about an easy-to-root-for team chasing their dream.

The American Gladiators Documentary (6/8)
Before there was American Ninja Warrior, there were the American Gladiators: muscular, often mullet-ed athletes against whom everyday folks would test their mettle in a series of punishing, push-the-limits physical events back in the 1990s. That glossy pop-culture and television-competition phenomenon is the focus of this lively tea-spilling two-part 30 for 30 documentary from director Ben Berman. With a God-complex motif running throughout the film, Berman settles in with enigmatic and controversial series co-creator Johnny Ferraro, whose controlling personality simultaneously helped him rise to the top and resulted in such deep-rooted animosity that, unfortunately for fans, many of the Gladiators declined to participate in the doc. Those who did — among them, Malibu, Elektra, Gemini, Sabre and Thunder — share their good, bad and sometimes-gruesome recollections about their experiences, which Berman juxtaposes against Ferraro’s selectively curated version of events. Part One, which delivers the hot goss on all the behind-the-scenes sex, steroids and serious safety issues, is the juicier, more-cohesive installment, while Part Two is a little more scattered, taking an investigative approach as it delves into the near-erasure of co-creator “Apache” Dan Carr. An entertaining eye-opener all around, the film is a must-see for anyone who ever wanted to Hang Tough, take a shot at Assault or run The Gauntlet … especially since comments made by some of its subjects hint that there remains a lot more as-yet-unearthed dirt to be dished.

I’m Just Here for the Riot (6/8)
When the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup championship in Game 7 back in 2011, all hell broke loose in the city as fans rioted in the streets. The impact of that event, and the subsequent online vigilante justice exacted on the perpetrators, is the focus of this ESPN 30 for 30 film from co-directors Kat Jayme and Asia Youngman. Through archival footage and present-day interviews with players, journalists, law enforcement and some of the offenders themselves, the duo very cleverly structure their doc so that it not only examines the chaos, violence and destruction of that night, but also asks the viewer to pause before passing judgment. Unsurprisingly, the first third of the film elicits zero sympathy for the mob of morons who destroyed the city, and does a great job riling up a “nope, no mercy, these idiots deserve whatever punishment they get” feeling. But then, unexpectedly, it turns on a dime. When the repercussions of their behavior hit the rioters like a tsunami, the doc quickly (and very smartly) poses a thought-provoking question: if mob mentality during a riot is inexcusable, how is mob mentality when doling out social-media shaming — even if it’s to the undeniably guilty (but subsequently remorseful) young (and stupid at the time) people who joined in the Vancouver fray — considered OK? What feels cut-and-dry in the beginning quickly morphs into something more complex, resulting in a compelling journey for the film’s subjects and its viewers.

Long Distance Swimmer: Sara Mardini (5/8)
If you saw 2022’s The Swimmers, you’re already acquainted with the titular Syrian refugee, a competitive swimmer whose troubling post-immigration story is the focus of this doc from director Charly Wai Feldman. Shot over the course of several years, the film follows Mardini — who was arrested in Greece in August 2018 and detained for three months after providing aid to migrant refugees — as she awaits (and awaits and awaits and awaaaaaaaits) trial. Having been charged with an array of very-serious crimes, including espionage, money laundering, smuggling and fraud, Mardini winds up stuck in an ongoing and highly frustrating years-long legal limbo as, technically, a “criminal” because her court date is repeatedly pushed back. Refusing to sit back and do nothing, Mardini sets out to expose the criminalization of humanitarian work, speaking to anyone who’ll listen, from online interviews to TED Talk audiences to supporters gathered in protest. Juxtaposing Mardini’s love of water and swimming with the mental and emotional endurance she requires to fight to clear her name, the doc reveals how would-be humanitarians are being discouraged by a system manufacturing wildly inflated and damaging charges against those providing refugee aid.

Stephen Curry: Underrated (5/8)
Anyone interested in taking a very deep dive into the formative Davidson College years of four-time NBA champ Stephen Curry, and in seeing extensive footage of the record-setting Golden State Warrior when he was a teenager, take note: this is the film for you. But if you’re looking for an in-depth profile of the nine-time NBA All-Star and record-setting point guard, Underrated may leave you a little… undersatisfied. I count myself in the latter category, and fully acknowledge that it’s perhaps a result of what I thought the film would be vs. what it actually is — hence, the aforementioned caveat. Directed by Peter Nicks, the doc deals almost entirely with the few years that a then-unknown Curry played for the equally-unknown-at-the-time Davidson Wildcats, and chronicles his evolution from talented high schooler to newsworthy NCAA March-Madness college star. Interviews with Curry’s college coaches and teammates recount his hardcourt highs and lows, but the bulk of the film is made up of a lot of game and practice footage from that era, over and over again, with only a surprisingly modest amount of present-day commentary and reflection from Curry sprinkled throughout. The result felt, to me, like more of an extended highlights reel than an exploration of the mind, motivation and mastery of a undeniably gifted athlete.

Unsyncable (5/8)
On the surface, director Megan Wennberg’s look at senior citizens participating in synchronized swimming — or, as it’s now called, “artistic swimming” — seems like it would be a fun, whimsical film about pursuing a passion later in life. And, while it accomplishes that to a degree, it’s not quite as “fluffy” as one might expect. Profiling an eclectic group of passionate swimmers in Canada and the United States, all of whom are either keeping existing skills sharp or honing new ones, the doc is a decidedly sedate exploration of finding purpose, connection and healing in the water. Only one of the film’s subjects swam competitively growing up; the others discovered their affinity for fishtails and flamingoes at or after retirement. And while Unsyncable features an array of engaging characters with great stories to tell, I found it a bit confusing at times because of the details/information left out. How did these swimmers from all over North America meet Sue? What exactly is the “U.S. Masters” — is it an amateur competition, a professional competition with amateur categories? (It seemed very small, so I assume the former.) Why does the San Francisco team disappear 2/3 of the way into the film? And so on. In the end, the film — while charming — just left me wanting a bit more.

Check out more of our Hot Docs 2023 coverage here!

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