The three hour sports documentary that doesn’t require you to like sports
First of all: full disclosure. I don’t care about sports. I’m almost completely ignorant of and equally indifferent to all sorts of competitions where people are supposed to jump, run, swim or toss balls and other objects one way or another.
Most of the sports I’ve watched in my life, I watched in class at school. You see, I grew up when the Swedish alpine skier Ingmar Stenmark was at his top. Whenever he was up for an important (or not so important) competition, all Swedes unanimously turned on their TVs and watched it, regardless of what they were doing at the moment. Everyone did it – at school, at work or in public and it didn’t matter if you cared about sports or not. Downhill skiing in the 70s was greater than life, don’t ask me why.
As an adult however I barely ever watch sports. Admittedly I enjoy watching elite gymnastics and figure skating, but I regard it more as a performing art than anything else. During the Olympics I might also check out the iconic men’s 100 m final since the raw energy burst somehow holds a spell over me and it only takes ten seconds of my time. And of course I watched every match and competition that my daughters participated in as they grew up. But with those exceptions, I don’t care for sports. I have no idea of which team won the national league in football this year and I can’t name a single Swedish basketball player. (Michael Jordan wasn’t Swedish, was he?)
Coming from this, you would imagine that a three hour long documentary about a couple of aspiring American basketball players wouldn’t be exactly my cup of tea. But strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely after all, it was.
A film about people
Hoop Dreams takes place over five years in the lives of the teenagers Arthur and William, who both come from poor circumstances, living in the inner-city of Chicago. The film starts as they’re about to begin high school and ends somewhere in the beginning of their college time. We follow them on their way through the educational system and the world of basketball. Both have been recruited to a high profile high school thanks to their talents for basketball. Both dream of becoming professional basketball players one day. And, as it turns out, both will have a rather bumpy ride as they’re trying to reach their goals.
So how is it that I, a middle-aged middle-class woman in Sweden with no knowledge or interest for American basketball, ended up liking this film? I would say that it’s because for being a film about basketball it hasn’t that much of basketball in it. If you’re looking for a film that recounts the history of basketball, that teaches you basketball tactics or how to become a better basketball player, this is not a film for you. This is a film about real people and their real lives.
Basketball to them isn’t just something you do with your friends an afternoon because it’s fun and gives you a bit of exercise. There’s a lot more at stake here; succeeding in basketball can be the one chance they’ll get in life to raise from poverty, to get an exam and a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on the boys is huge, from their family as well as from the schools that have recruited them. If they turn out not to become the excellent players that their original talent suggested or if they end up injured, they run the risk to be spitted out from the machinery, back to the place where they came from. The recruiting schools that offer scholarships and prosperity as long as they play well aren’t necessarily doing a bad thing. But there’s definitely a downside to the system.
Had this been a reality TV show, we would have seen sensational twists or people badmouthing each other secretly in front of the camera every second minute. Unbearable if you ask me. But as the serious documentary film it is, it makes no hurry to get to the dramatic and emotional highpoints. The film is plodding along during the three hours it lasts and there are long sequences of lectures at school, family gatherings and spontaneous basketball games with family and friends in the neighborhood. This is not necessarily a negative, but you should be prepared for it or you might get a little impatient.
You need to take the mental step into the world of those boys and walk along with them, rather than watching them from the sideline, waiting for the drama to unfold.
The role of the women
One final thought that occurred to me as I watched this: the film is rather traditional when it comes to how it conveys men and women. The men are the ones with talent who struggle to fulfill their dreams. The women don’t dream for their own part. They dream on behalf of men and are there to support them. You have the mothers who push the boys, cheer for them, cry with them and help them along all the way. You have the girlfriend who takes care of a baby that it took two people to make. You have the cheerleaders who do what cheerleaders are supposed to do: dance, chant smile and cheer for the team of men to win. It’s not the filmmaker’s fault I suppose; it’s a documentary after all. But it was a little saddening to see.
Hoop Dreams was made twenty years ago, but given that it was made today, I wonder if it could have been about dreams of two promising female players? Is there such a thing as scholarships for girls with a talent for basketball? I hope so and I hope someone one day will bother to tell their story.
Women do engage in other sport activities than cheerleading and figure skating. It’s about time that movies start to reflect this fact.
Hoop Dreams (Steve James, US 1994) My rating: 4,5/5
I watched Hoop Dreams as a part of a blogathon run by the Swedish network Filmspanarna. The theme was “sports movies”. Here’s what my fellow bloggers wrote on the topic: