Sundance festival-going has always been a sport; placing bets on indie box office futures, offering standing ovations to the underdog film that wins respect in front of a live audience, securing courtside seats to the biggest face-offs. But actual athletics, on screen and off, once seemed limited to that other population of Park City who visited the area when the high-heeled boots left town. Sport at Sundance was a pleasure categorized as “guilty,” and often came in a sociological package; Sundance’s most famous sport-film premiere, Hoop Dreams, in 1994, was about the false promise athletics offered the underclass. But that was another century.
I could be wrong, but a shift seems to have taken place since the Olympics put its print on the festival’s location ten years back. Sports films—from the athlete and fan points of view—have arrived, and not just as kibble for the lowbrow sponsor class. They’ve entered the arena, as art, with full appreciation for the pursuit of physical mastery.
The 2001 Sundance premiere of Stacy Peralta’s skater film Dogtown and Z-Boys recalled great surf porn of the past but added that necessary longitudinal/sociological angle for the indie/art circuit while also jumpstarting the next generation of skater cinematographers hoping to capture the yet more amazing rides on camera. The results, both of consumer-friendly technology and audience thirst/appreciation for films that can organize feats of physical achievement into moving, horrifying and/or uplifting big-screen stories, can be seen in two 2013 two films with wholly different stories to tell from the wide world of sport.
Truly, one could imagine no other location for a premiere of Lucy Walker’s excellent The Crash Reel, a film about the rise, horrific fall and rise again of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, whose nearly lethal accident took place on the very mountain that cast a shadow over the venues Walker presented her film. A film about brain injury, family and the corruption of a pastime that’s turned into blood sport, with audiences and sponsors hungry for yet more excessively dangerous, crowd-pleasing tricks and a growing death toll, it’s also an appreciation of fortitude, on and off the mountain.
Pearce had been headed for the Vancouver Olympics, where he was assured a spot and hoped for a gold medal, when he suffered a traumatic fall that his brain is still recovering from. Luckily, his unique family, including his high-functioning brother with Down Syndrome, was well-placed to offer support and guide him through the process of replacing old dreams of snowboard glory with new ones of not-so-simple survival.
But what it also points toward is the democratic process by which such sports stories are now assembled. Walker, when asked in the Q&A, how she got such intimate footage of family decision-making, revealed that she had collected footage from 223 different sources. Cameras had been on Pearce from the moment he was born: His family, his friends and his fans had been filming the beauty of motion, marking his steps, defining the journey from the very beginning.
Likewise, the story of Jeremy Lin, the formerly NBA-undrafted Harvard star whose famous streak as a New York Knicks point guard turned a sour league season into spectacularly viral international lovefest that gives Evan Jackson Leong’s labor of love its title, Linsanity. Lin had been filmed since he was little, from piano recitals through to his AAU games and into his prolific high school seasons in Palo Alto, California. There was no shortage of footage and much of it is sheer joy to watch and watch again, as Lin moves from D-leaguer to coverage (and defeat) of Kobe Bryant.
The story touches all the expected nerves regarding its core underdog drama with rich veins of racism but does so with a continual show-don’t-tell return to Lin’s spectacular on-court qualities. Talking heads are minimal; movement maximized. The effect is as exciting as watching that game-winning miracle three-pointer or revenge dunk. The very indie project, seemingly without the type of funding other sport documentary vanity projects are offered (its filmmakers started it when Jeremy was still at Harvard, and it still awaits a distribution offer at press time) manages to compile a collection of match footage that surges with adrenaline, unapologetically.
Watching a film like this in the context of a festival is another experience altogether for sport fans, who usually gather their info via television, iPhone and live newsfeed, where loyalties and results matter more than visual presentation and narrative sophistication. On the big screen, these battles are also beautiful and larger than life. With a big audience (whether it’s rooting for the snowboarder to quit or the Asian American underdog basketball player to not give up), the breathing, wondering, worrying together builds a moment to match the original battle.