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Culture Documentary

Competitive callings

Sherpa (Renan Ozturk/Handout)

Documentary

Competitive callings

Five documentaries offer diverse sports experiences

Since COVID-19 has sidelined professional, amateur, and kids’ sporting events, some fans are wondering how to get their competitive sports fix. Only so many times can you rewatch game six of the 2011 World Series when the Cardinals beat the Rangers 10-9 in 11 innings. (If you like baseball, the excitement and competitive thrill that game generates make it worth watching.) 

The five documentaries listed below may have escaped notice when originally released. Each is very different from the next and immerses the viewer in a unique sports culture. Each has caveats, so take note. 

Undefeated (Amazon Prime, Netflix, 2011, PG-13 for language): Bill Courtney volunteers to coach the football team at Manassas High School in North Memphis, a run-down, poor section of the city. The documentary follows Courtney and his team from the first day of practice in 2009 to the last game of the year. Courtney grew up without a father, is now a family man, and considers his players as family. His goal is to get Manassas to the playoffs for the first time ever, and in the process instill character in his mostly fatherless players by teaching teamwork, hard work, and doing the right thing. Sometimes hard to watch because of the gritty reality, and sometimes touching, the film includes church scenes, prayer, and a few surprises near the end.

Alex Viera: A Story of Surviving (Netflix, 2019, TV-14): A subtitled film about a Uruguayan soccer player beloved by his homeland and Colombian soccer teams, it personifies universal themes of perseverance, overcoming adversity, and forgiveness. Alex Viera worked his way up from being the always-last-picked in youth soccer to premier professional goalkeeper. When shot in his driveway by a thief, he struggles to overcome effects of the paralyzing bullets. Much of this one-hour documentary of reenactments, game footage, and interviews centers on his supportive family and friends and their belief in the resilient young man. His commitment to make good from the hurt done to him is uplifting. Read the subtitles quickly—they’re gone in a flash.

Sherpa (Amazon Prime, 2015, NR, language, including several F-bombs): This film originally planned to explore the life of the Sherpas, an ethnic group that became well known after 1953’s summiting of Mount Everest by a Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, and Sir Edmund Hillary. Today, many Sherpas make their living as Everest’s premiere mountain guides. During filming, an early morning avalanche killed 16 hikers, including two Sherpas. The beautifully photographed documentary explores the treacherous life of the Sherpas, then after the avalanche it veers off to display tensions between the Western expeditions, the Nepalese government, and the Sherpas, who make very little on the climbs, yet risk their lives. The question of the moral justification for continuing to climb—while knowing the deadly potential—is never answered. One Sherpa remarks: “We will go on pretending it’s safe.” Steeped in Tibetan Buddhism, the film exposes Nepal’s need for the gospel.

1: Zipper Bros Films; 2: Caddie Doc LLC; 3: Brocklamation Films; 4: Netflix

1: Undefeated; 2: Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk; 3: Touch the Wall; 4: Alex Viera: A Story of Surviving (1: Zipper Bros Films; 2: Caddie Doc LLC; 3: Brocklamation Films; 4: Netflix)

Touch the Wall (Amazon Prime, 2014, NR, brief language) follows the intersecting paths of swimmers Missy Franklin and Kara Lynn Joyce, beginning almost two years before the 2012 London Olympics. Franklin is trying to make the Olympic team for the first time; Joyce is attempting to stay on it and compete in her third Olympics. At the start of the documentary, Franklin is 14 years old and Joyce is 26, but they become best friends training together under the same coach, one who’s interested in teaching life lessons, not just strokes. Franklin’s supportive parents and Jesuit high school contrast markedly with Joyce’s adult independence and eventual move-in with her boyfriend, but their encouragement of one another never wanes despite head-to-head competition. The depiction of dedication and discipline, and constant practice and travel, gives viewers a glimpse of the commitment needed to succeed. Franklin’s winning personality, optimism, and genuine smile fill many frames.

Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk (Amazon Prime, 2019, PG, occasional, suggestive rude humor): Even non-golfers will enjoy this Bill Murray–narrated, entertaining take on how caddying has leaped from being considered golf’s “show up, keep up, shut up” profession historically, to today’s highly paid, invaluable asset of top golfers. Highlighting beautiful courses around the world and professional golfing legends and caddies, the documentary emphasizes the other-oriented nature of caddying that requires rigorous knowledge of the course, the clubs, the game, and the golfer. And it explores how good caddies pave the fairway to success and develop deep, lasting relationships with golfers. Learn the difference between a links course and a parkland course, what the caddy code of conduct entails, and how much money is available for caddy scholarships. Plus, savor the sweet Scottish brogues.