Steve James’s film Prefontaine.
Nate von Zumwalt
Beyond the tape-delay broadcasts, ubiquitous spoilers, and compulsory diplomacy, I’ve always been rapt by the galvanizing powers of the Olympic Games. They’re a rare opportunity to revel in nationalism without condemnation, and better yet, the Games are always good for a generous helping of controversy. Really though, it’s like clockwork (see: Voula Pappachristou and Michel Morganella). As one would expect, all these combustible parts make for great film. Here are our five most agile Olympic films to have received support from Sundance Institute or the Sundance Film Festival.
Despite failing to medal at the ’72 Summer Games, Steve Prefontaine remains one of the most iconic American track athletes of all time. He dominated the college track circuit as a three-time cross country champion and was widely revered for his strong will and obstinate running style. Director Steve James’ follow-up to Hoop Dreams is another gem, retracing the life of a man who single-handedly reaffirmed his sport’s relevancy in the competitive culture of American athletics.
The most grating argument a sport-averse person can make is that athletics are inherently futile. I hereby exhort that jaded faction of the population to observe Marius Markevicius’s debut documentary. The Other Dream Team chronicles the Lithuanian basketball team’s journey to a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics and a victory over its oppressor, the former Soviet Union. Markevicius, who is of Lithuanian descent, crafts an engrossing story detailing the invaluable role of sports as a vehicle for cultural and political change.
Kevin MacDonald’s riveting doc recounts one of the greatest tragedies in the history of athletics—the massacre of 11 Israel athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich by a Palestinian group known as the Black September. One Day in September, the recipient of a 1999 Sundance Documentary Film Grant, draws upon archival footage and interviews with a surviving terrorist to revisit the event and shine a light upon the grave mishandling of circumstances by security officials.
China Heavyweight chronicles the strangely quotidian practice of athletic coaches combing through poor communities in southwestern China enlisting teenagers to train as boxers. From grueling training regimens to isolation from their families, the young trainees are forced to sacrifice the little that they have for a shot at representing their country in the Olympics.
Fatima Geza Abdollahyan’s Kick in Iran is another convincing testament to the role of sports in promoting change—in this case, challenging societal mores. Sarah Khoshjamal is a 20-year-old Taekwondo superstar and the first female professional athlete from Iran to qualify for the Olympics. Kick in Iran tracks her ascent to the Olympics and plight to break the longstanding gender discrimination in her country.
Drea Cooper, Zackary Canepari, and Sue Johnson are using Kickstarter to help cover post-production costs on their film. T-REX is a documentary about 17-year-old Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, the youngest competitor in the first-ever women’s boxing event at the Olympics.