Posts Tagged ‘Sport documentary’

Dettori (2021)

Dir: Anthony Wonke | UK Doc | 114′

This biopic about the Italian-born jockey Frankie Dettori is a film for everyone to enjoy, not just the racing fraternity. It gallops forward on the back of Dettori’s infectious charisma and sunny optimism, a role model who proves that perseverance and commitment is just as important as talent, often more so. With over 3000 wins under his belt, Dettori is as popular as he’s successful on the turf. An admiring portrait of a man who’s still raring to go at 50, but the admiration is justified, and, as a bonus, the camera just loves him, as much as the horses do.

Like the jockey himself, Anthony Wonke’s film darts backwards and forwards, while Frankie, spotlit, just talks into the camera. It all starts with a spurt of adrenaline in  October 2019 at the famous Arc de Triomphe in Longchamp (near Paris) where we first meet Dettori and his ‘soulmate’ Enable, the champion British Thoroughbred racehorse. The pair are a legend. And rightly so. Frankie describes his bond with the horse as a ‘living/breathing experience’. Riders can be “emotionally touched” by certain horses, and the champion Enable was certainly one of them for him. Dettori rode Enable in everyone of her 14 races, winning 11 of them. And although they didn’t win on this third unprecedented attempt to take the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, there is tremendous support from the 40,000 strong crowd who are more nervous than he is. The deflation of being pipped to the post is so emotional, and you feel for him – and the horse. Then comes the usual pep-talk from his father on the journey back home.

The story then flashes back to Italy and Dettori’s modest upbringing in Milan. His father Gianfranco had tried his luck as a stable boy and soon developed a talent for riding, becoming a champion jockey and one of the best riders of his generation. His constant presence as a taskmaster and mentor has shaped Frankie’s career. Frankie describes how his father (who still calls him Lanfranco) eventually gave him a palomino pony. But he had “all the gear and no idea” until he was shipped off to Luton, England – which was the making of him. Padre Dettori still spurs him on mercilessly, even today, where the story comes full circle with his own daughter Ella, now competing as a rider.

Frankie remembers a fraught childhood. And although his mother was an affectionate figure, the young Frankie was a ‘volcano inside’ according to his sister Alessandra who spent lockdown in the family home near Newmarket with his English wife Catherine and their five children, and still makes him his favourite “polpette”.

There’s so much to pack in, but Bafta-awarded Anthony Wonke somehow manages it in just under two hours: that day at Ascot in 1996 when Dettori won 7 races on the trot; the tragic plane crash at Goodwood that saw him escaping with Ray Cochrane (the pilot  was killed); his international achievements in Dubai, and the pinnacle of the racing diary The Epsom Derby. He covers the years with the training aristocracy: Luca Cumani, Peter Burrell and John Gosden who describes him as a “one-man marketing operation”. But Gianfranco really seems to have made him what he is today, pumping him full of confidence but also verbally horse-whipping his son into shape. Horses run for him. He seems to fly with the horse and the strong work ethic is there too. And his joie de vivre is extraordinary.

There are the lows too, where Frankie has a brush with drugs, spending time in a Hong Kong jail. But the film also describes his love of the limelight: he wanted to be famous too much to let that life get the better of him. Covid was the worst time, his wife Catherine describing how he very much needs the buzz of the track and the international competitions to keep his mojo up. She comes across as a powerful, stabilising force along with their united, loving family; a rift with his father is now healed. At its heart, Dettori is a feelgood film that captures the essence of an extremely likeable man who simply rides horses better than anyone else does. MT


Athlete A (2020) **** Netflix

Dir.: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk | With Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jessia Howard, Jamie Dantzsher; US Doc 2020, 104 min.

Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (Audrey&Daisy) get behind the camera for this worthwhile documentary that chronicles the ongoing sexual abuse of members of the USA Gymnastic team. The person responsible was none other that their trusted team physician Dr. Larry Nassar, who got a custodial sentence of 121 years in 2017 for molesting over a hundred young women. The feature is shot from the perspective of the investigating journalists of the Indianapolis Star, whose efforts are the basis for this documentary.

But the inquiry also uncovered complaints against 54 coaches were made during a course of many years. The President and CEO of USA Gymnastics , Steve Penny (who resigned and awaits trial), helped to cover up the abuses – and he was not alone. But if there is one weak point of the documentary, it pins the entire blame on Penny as the evil mastermind – in reality the whole organisation has to take the rap for the systemic abuse.

The account of survivors make heart-breaking listening: there is Maggie Nichols (the titular Athlete A, named so after her complaint which was followed by blackballing her); Rachael Denhollander; Jamie Dantzscher and Jessica Howard, their stories telling not only the actual abuse but the cover-up which went on for over a decade. Dantzscher states she was so proud of being an Olympian, but after Nassar abused her during the games in 2000, she associated the Olympics with this vestige of shame.

But this is also a story of the Cold War: Until the end of Stalinism in 1989, gymnasts from the Warsaw pact countries had dominated the sport. In 1981, Bela and Marta Karolyi, Hungarian-born coaches of the Romanian national gymnastic team (along with their choreographer Geza Poszar) defected to the USA. They had been responsible for the success of Nadia Comaneci among others. The Karolyis installed themselves in a training facility near Huntsville, Texas, which closed in 2018. They have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. There is a clip in Athlete A, with Marta Karolyi (who retired in 2016) admitting her awareness of  Nassar’s abuse at the “Ranch”. Poszar admitted the method of working with the young athletes “was total control over the girls.” Coaches, not only the Karolyis, abused the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically: they were slapped, and told that they were fat.

The norm for female gymnasts was to be 5.4 feet and anorexic. Poszar also claimed these method were acceptable in Romania – and obviously in the USA too. The gymnasts in the Huntsville were isolated, parents were not allowed to visit, the gymnasts were forbidden to phone friends or relatives outside the facilities. Former USA National Team gymnast Jennifer Sey (one of he co-producers of the feature), author of “Chalked Up” talked about merciless coaching, overzealous parents, eating disorders and above all, the dream of Olympic Gold. The line between coaching and abuse gets blurred, Athletes were often forced to compete in spite of serious injuries. We watch Kerri Strug winning a Gold Medal at the 1996 Olympics despite a severe ankle injury. But medals meant good business for the USA Team and their CEO Steve Perry.

Perhaps the most saddening statement comes from one of the victims: “Dr. Nassar was the nicest grown-up in the camp”. This most damning sentence calls for a complete reassessment of the next gymnastic competition in the sporting calendar. Shot with a lively camera by Jon Shenk, Athlete A is  another eye-opener: the perverted drive for Olympic medals, reducing young women to “little girls” to be objectified and abused, is just another example of the male gaze and its horrifying consequences, finally emerging after decades of cover-ups. AS


Beyond the River (2018) ***

Dir.: Craig Freimond; Cast: Lemogang Tsipa, Grant Swanby, Emily Child, Kgosi Mongake; South Africa 2017, 110 min.

Beyond the River is a conventional real-life sporting feature, with redemption written all over it. Director/co-writer Craig Freimond (Material) doesn’t ignore the social inequalities in today’s South Africa, but his emotional pathos and seductive sentimentalism reduces any realism to a minimum.

Based on the true story of canoeists Siseko Ntondini and Priers Cruickshanks –  played as Duma (Tsipa) and Steve (Swanby) – who won Gold medals in the 2014 Dasi endurance race, Freimond develops a formulaic structure, showing the emotional struggle both men have to overcome. Duma, in his twenties, lives with his family in a dilapidated hut in a black poor, crime-ridden neighbourhood. After the death of his mother, he had to give up on his ambition. Steve is more than ten years older than his partner, and lives in a middle class flat in the capital – but is unhappily married to Annie (Child). We later learn that Steve wa partly responsible for the accidental death of their son, and has since repressed any memory of him, forcing Annie to leave him. The canoe races are a splendid spectacle even though  Freimond uses a great deal of 70s style slow-motion, in keeping with genre rules.

Spectacular visuals save this from being just another humdrum human interest story fuelled by male testosterone and empty gestures. Tsipa and Swanby share a compelling on screen  chemistry and this fuels the rather overblown narrative, Child taking to the role of cheer-leader, like in some 50s boys own feature. Beyond the River just about passes as decent entertainment even though the male heroics feel old-fashioned and repetitive. AS


Fulboy (2015) | Bfi Flare

Writer|Director: Martin Farina

With Tomas Farina, Jorge Luis Medina, Gonzalo Peralta, Facundo Talin, Cristian Vergara

82min  Documentary Argentina | Spanish with subtitles

FULBOY is the leisurely debut doc of Martin Farina, who offers commentary in an occasional voiceover as he films his younger brother, a professional footballer, during downtime in the locker rooms chattting to his teammates about the ups and downs of the beautiful game. Apart from offering an eyeful of tattooed and toned ‘pecs’ and thighs, it gets under the skin of these fit sportsmen to see how they think and feel in intimate close-up and on the wider screen. As they roam around like jaguars; styling their hair, showering and posing – they are constantly checking each other out, knowing that soon the TV camera will be scanning their every move during the Big Match.

Frequent glimpses of the Virgin Mary – even in their extensively tattooed bodies – reinforce Argentina as a matriarchal society; and talk of their mothers and wives crops up frequently during banter which covers anything from minor complaints about other players to the stresses and strains of the game, gruelling training sessions and a controlled diet that forbids alcohol. Rather than being a dream to play football for money, it often feels prison-like, when they are trapped in the confines of their hotel, during tough training for tournaments. Lacking a strong narrative as such, FULBOY is nonetheless a pleasurable watch, focusing on the fact that football is all about performing and being watched. But it’s also about making some money and investing it wisely, aware that by 45 these men will have to retire. While quietly monitoring each other, the players make sure that each pulls his weight during contests and that remuneration is fair. At the end of the day, football is a job they do for money and competition is fierce, they have to plan for transfers and make the most of their youthful years. Celebrity or stardom is not the goal, they want to work hard and looking after their families.

Dreamlike, the playful camera roves around in a langorous fashion, finding all sorts of creative angles to explore, in soft focus, both in the showers and outside in the sultry sunshine. A gentle ambient occasional score lulls the relaxed atmosphere or this voyeuristic piece that is underpinned by undercurrents of assured masculinity. MT


The Crash Reel (2013)

Director: Lucy Walker

90mins  ****  Documentary  Biopic  US

The story of snowboarders Kevin Pearce and Shaun White has an unexpected outcome. TheCrashReel

Lucy Walker’s adreniline-fuelled, action-packed sports doc is a visual feast of panoramic time-lapse sequences in the snowbound landscapes of Canada and Colorado, set to an exhilarating soundtrack. But this snowboarding doc soon develops into something far more fascinating and meaningful. Meaningful, that is, even if you’re not a fan of the sport or of any sport, for that matter. The Crash Reel is really about the nature of risk, of human frailty and how the support of a loving family can enable us to reach our full potential, whatever life throws our way.

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Kevin Pearce and Shaun White are highly competitive World champions and arch rivals in the extreme sport of snow-boarding.  We see them competing here for the Vancouver Olympics but when Pearce suffers a tragic accident, White goes on to take the Gold medal.  The story then turns the spotlight on Pearce, following him in the aftermath and recovery process. Examining at close quarters his will to survive and sheer conviction that one day he will return to the slopes and beat Shaun White are extraordinary. But his medics and family fear that this may cost him his life.

Growing up with a close family in an upmarket part of Vermont, Kevin Pearce and his three brothers (one of them with Down’s Syndrome) had every possible advantage in life.  But he’s a reckless individual who develops into a risk-taker whose will to win becomes paramount.  In this climate of industry pressure and lack of regulations, extreme sports people will push themselves to the preternatural extremes, risking life, limb and family loyalty to meet the expecations of their public.  Lucy Walker shows how ultimately greater awareness of our own boundaries can actually help us develop greater spiritual awareness and that evolvement of the mind rather than the body is the real key to human success. MT



Venus and Serena (2013)

Director Maiken Baird and Michelle Major

With: Serena and Venus Williams, Richard Williams, John McEnroe, Billie Jean King, Anna Wintour

99mins    US Sports Documentary

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When businessman Richard Williams bought a manual on teaching tennis there was no doubt in his mind.  His aim was to hothouse his little daughters to success on the international tennis circuit.

Today Venus and Serena Williams are the first African Americans to have won the World Finals Championships at Wimbledon.  Maiken Baird and Michelle Major’s cinéma vérité piece follows the pair through the 2011 tennis season.  Alex Gibney, the director of Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God has also backed the project which combines early childhood footage of the girls, interviews with family and tennis luminaries such as John ‘You Cannot Be Serious’ McEnroe, together with top moments from the world of tennis.

The Williams sisters share a similar background to that of Michael Jackson: a controlling, even draconian father figure; a gruelling training lifestyle that precludes any childhood pleasure and, above all, a commitment to God.  A self-made man with thriving business interests, Mr Williams was determined that Venus and her younger sister, Serena, would both follow his path to success. But they took things one step further, overcoming countless setbacks along the way due to their unique bond with each other.

Fascinating and fact-filled; Venus and Serena is an absorbing watch, catching the superhuman quality of the girls with their amazonian physiques (and rock-hard thighs). Focusing on their positivity and total lack of self-doubt, it charts their glittering successes and, what is more surprising, their total respect for their father.  At one point Serena calls him ‘Sir’, despite his philandering ways: Williams is on his second marriage. They also discover some astounding home truths about their large family and reveal to us the secrets of their own brand of success which now extends beyond the tennis courts.

Venus and Serena is a well put-together documentary.  With moments of triumph and dark humour, it provides an absorbing account of this classic ‘rags to riches’ story and will appeal to sports fanatics and tennis lovers everywhere, particularly in the run-up to Wimbledon. MT.

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