Why sports documentaries are no longer one-dimensional fan-fests

Kaleem Aftab charts how sports documentaries have moved into the art-house arena

Making sports documentaries was once looked upon as the cinematic equivalent of scoring own goals. They were traditionally the preserve of television or, more recently, the straight-to-DVD market. They had titles like The 100 Best Goals of the Season or David Beckham: Life of an Icon. They were films, aimed at sports fans, with no pretence of any cinematic value. However, the appearance of two sports documentaries at the Cannes Film Festival this year, James Toback's Tyson and Emir Kusturica's Maradona, and the forthcoming documentary on Kobe Bryant by Spike Lee, is proof that sports documentaries have become respectable.

The release of Hoop Dreams in 1994 became the benchmark for a new type of sports documentary, one with cinema rather than TV audiences in mind. Like a young sportsperson making a first breakthrough, the film came out of nowhere to take audiences by surprise, ultimately going on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary. What made Hoop Dreams so watchable was that it wasn't really about basketball at all. It was the story of two African-American working-class kids, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who saw basketball as a way out of poverty and social housing.

Director Steve James followed the two prospects for five years and captured a rare insight into race in America, and into the harsh realities of life near the poverty line.

The rise in stature of sports documentaries has seen Stacy Peralta become the first director to earn "auteur" status just for making sports documentaries. Both Dogtown and Z-Boys (2002), which surveyed the growth of skateboarding in the late Sixties by following a group of skaters from Peralta's home turf of Venice Beach, California, and 2004's Riding Giants, which took a similar look at the evolution of surfing, were more concerned with the life and culture of southern California at the time than they were with showing or providing any great insight into the sports on display.

In 2006 came Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno. For this film, all of their cameras were trained solely on Zinedine Zidane during a match between his Real Madrid team and Villarreal. Part film, part art-installation, the whole match is shown only from the perspective of Zidane. With a soundtrack from Mogwai, it's infinitely superior to Sky Sports's PlayerCam.





Watch the Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait trailer






The old formulaic approach has been put to bed by film-makers trying to find stories about sports stars that wouldn't appear in the sports pages. This can clearly be seen in Fred Poulet and Vikash Dhorasoo's fascinating documentary Substitute. Poulet says: "I wasn't looking to make a sports film when I gave the camera to Vikash Dhorasoo during the 2006 World Cup." The result is less about the World Cup than a film about alienation and being left out of the group.

Director James Toback has had unprecedented access to Tyson. His film sees Tyson talk about his life to the camera, and Toback cuts the 30 hours of footage of interviews to give an insight into the way the former heavyweight champion of the world sees the world. He talks about his rape conviction, money problems and religion. The only voice in the documentary is Tyson's, and very occasionally the footage is interspersed with Tyson boxing. One memorable scene sees Tyson reveal that he had gonorrhea when he first fought for the heavyweight crown, against Trevor Berbick.

Access and a different, innovative, perspective are the key to these new documentaries. The failings of Kusturica's Maradona are largely down to the fact that, in three years, the Argentine footballer agreed to sit down and be interviewed by the director only twice. We never feel like we get into the heart and soul of Maradona, and consequently Kusturica tries to plug the gaps, not with archive footage, but by making outlandish comparisons between characters in his own earlier films and Maradona. Kusturica is clearly aware that, in the YouTube age, footage of stars performing is readily accessible and a unique angle must be found.

Lee, by contrast, was so wowed by Zidane that he decided to use the same approach to film basketball player Kobe Bryant in action. He also announced at Cannes that he is making not one, but two, sports documentaries, as the NBA has commissioned him to make a film on basketball legend Michael Jordan.

The way film-makers are now approaching sports documentaries is distinctive: Tyson is a world away from Maradona, and the emphasis is on making the events smaller and more personal. Where once a sports documentary would emphasise how an event rocked the world, the latest documentaries are far more taken by how such events have emotionally affected an individual.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine