In case readers haven’t noticed, I no longer review feature-length documentaries on this site. I may reference a well known documentary filmmaker from time to time (e.g. Werner Herzog, Ken Burns, etc.) or cite particular documentary filmmaking styles (e.g. cinema verite, direct cinema, observational or “fly-on-the-wall” visual approaches, etc.) as they relate to popular narrative filmmaking, but almost nothing beyond that. When I remind people this site emphasizes my cinephilia above all else, I refer to cinephilia as most viewers comprehend the term, which is using the camera, editing, and screenwriting to tell a fictional story.
My aversion to documentary analyses wasn’t always a part of this site, however. Upon first launching Express Elevator to Hell, I reviewed popular documentaries such as the works of Michael Moore as well as more niche features like The Cove (2009), Restrepo (2011), Hell and Back Again (2011), and Food, Inc (2008). I even analyzed Third Cinema pieces like La Hora de Los Hornos (1968). What I noticed after reviewing those movies was (1) their audiences embraced political subjectivity even further than folks with an ax to ground do with narrative cinema, and (2) I didn’t like watching those documentaries, much less writing about them. I don’t know whether my impatience with most documentary features involved their inherent political subject-matter (most high-profile documentaries have a sociopolitical angle to them, which is fine in and of itself) or the controversial reactions they stirred in their audiences, but I soon realized watching most documentaries was neither invigorating from an educational perspective, nor enjoyable from an entertainment standpoint. Even overlooking the tedious discussions surrounding these documentaries, which seemed more a function of target-audience background and viewers’ inclination to agree — or disagree — with everything a given documentary says, I found most of the documentaries themselves boring. I don’t think most of the documentaries I’ve watched over my entire lifetime are good films.
Then, about a year ago, I joined the bandwagon and subscribed to Netflix’s streaming service. Aside from the platform’s vast collection of original television series and feature-films — narrative series and films, that is — I noted their plethora of original documentary productions. The streaming service has its fair share of feature-length documentaries (e.g. The Edge of Democracy ) similar to the theatrical releases I noted above, but more prominent were Netflix’s collection of documentary series, multi-part, multi-episode narratives that unfolded with patience and attention to cinematic detail. They reminded me of other popular television shows native to various streaming services (e.g. HBO, Amazon, Hulu, etc) in terms of overarching style and production values, but traded fictional narratives for real ones.
This element of narrative inertia was most evident amongst sports or athletic documentary series I watched. To this day, I’m not certain how athletic competition makes documentary filmmaking “pop,” per se, but it may have much to do with how many of us watch abbreviated “sports documentaries” every day — they’re called sporting events, or games. Capturing athletic events on camera is a form of documentary production, commercial interruptions not withstanding, so when streamlined into 30-60 minute intervals and fleshed out with personable interviews or slice-of-life observational filmmaking, it becomes great cinema.
My hypothesis regarding the inherent cinematic nature of the sport documentary series is as follows: Physical activity in general is a visual, understandable dynamic friendly to the camera, much like musical dance-numbers or choreographed action scenes, and the physical competition of sports creates tension and dramatic stakes. The online series format excises corporate advertising that distract from the activity at play, while filming athletes, trainers, coaches, etc. outside competitive events and editing them ex situ over multiple hours deepens our emotional investment in these figures beyond their mere physical performance.
Sociopolitical commentary will naturally emerge from this combination of interviews, observational filmmaking, and athletic drama if the filmmakers allow it, but in ways that feel more personable and less artificial than in features where preaching is the entire point of the project. In this manner, the sports documentary series may be the ultimate summary of a subculture or way of life.
Case in point are the Netflix sports documentaries Last Chance U (LCU, 2016-2019) and Basketball or Nothing (BoN, 2019). The former details the lives of junior college (“JuCo“) gridiron football athletes in various community colleges across the United States, student-athletes with potential to perform at NCAA Division I or even professional levels, but whose academic, legal, or emotional issues have thus far prevented them from reaching that potential. These athletes therefore enroll in JuCo football programs as a form of athletic development and personal rehabilitation, hoping to return to four-year universities and perhaps transition that success to the NFL. Needless to say, much drama and hilarity — and even some tragedy — ensue amongst these colorful figures, including as many profanity laced rants as a reality TV-fan could want.
Stylistically comparable to yet tonally opposite of LCU is the Navajo Nation-based high school basketball series, BoN. Whereas LCU is sprawling (~52-76 minutes per episode over four seasons) and often morbid, BoN is concise (~30-36 minutes per episode over a single season), uplifting, and wholesome. The series’ focus on high school anxiety and the poverty endemic to most Native American reservations keeps the series grounded in reality, but its cast’s chipper personalities and sheer lack of profanity feel refreshing. The show’s lone drawback may be its limited running time, which restrains the amount of backstory allotted for Chinle, Arizona high school players and coaches, though the filmmakers do an admirable job fleshing out the Navajo setting within the constraints of their series format.
Aside from these show’s dedication to the humanity of their subjects and their efficient use of narrative structure, both LCU and BoN are as slick and well shot as any film festival documentary. Both series’ athletic content predisposes them to pervasive slow-motion and handheld camerawork, often accentuated with a memorable pop soundtrack and illustrious musical introductions. LCU in particular utilizes a variety of footage and capture techniques to streamline game progression and highlight spectacular plays from different angles. BoN, in comparison, feels somewhat more stilted in its sports cinematography, but in absolute terms its visual direction is beyond most comic-adapted television series or serialized dramas, and also highlights individual athlete personalities in between plays better than most live-game coverage. Beyond their cinematic glorification of athletic performance, though, both LCU and BoN keep their interviews prevalent yet concise, often transitioning to voiceovers or montage sequences that further emphasize the meaning of those dialogues through visuals.
At the end of the day, this essay was not meant as a definitive review of either Last Chance U or Basketball or Nothing because, among other things, both series may continue for additional seasons and I mention them here as a highlight of sports documentary series in general. I also thought it appropriate to recall my initial disillusionment with documentary film studies upon first starting this blog, which has come full-circle with my reappraisal of documentary filmmaking through the subject of athletic competition. The use of athletics as a focal point to analyze everyday human life, at least American (US) life, seems an effective strategy to observe and question as many community norms as possible in a digestible, approachable format. That these successful, well reviewed series dissect athletic organizations far below the professional level speaks to the cultural importance of sports throughout multiple levels of American life. With a humanist focus, a broad cast of sympathetic figures, an eye for visual style, and creative editing, contemporary sports documentaries designed for the future of television (i.e. streaming) may best showcase the power of real-life captured on film.