Congratulations from BallinEurope go out this morning to Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Christoph Waltz, Daniel Day-Lewis, the Argo team, Jennifer Lawrence (swoon) and the other winners of Academy Awards last night. And now, it’s decision time here.
The annual bestowing of BallinEurope’s Oscar (Robertson) Awards for basketball excellence in 2012 has seen Thunderstruck, The Dream Team and The Harlem Globetrotters take awards in their individual categories, leaving the prize for “Best Full-Length Documentary” still to be awarded — and lemme tell ya, BiE has spent way too much time thinking it over this weekend.
The no-brainer nominee (and well worthy) is the long-awaited The Other Dream Team, which was finally released in 2012 after more than two years of buildup and production. And damn, was it worth the wait.
For those somehow not in the know on this film, The Other Dream Team tells the story of the 1992 Lithuanian men’s basketball team, a squad essentially assembled from scratch, rather like its home nation itself in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. As with their Team USA counterparts in that fateful year (not to mention the silver-winning Croatia and even the fourth-place “Unified Team”), the scope of Team Lithuania’s story is huge. Unlike The Dream Team’s run to immortality in Barcelona, though, this team’s podium finish carried all the weight of history with more than a touch of good-humored wackiness.
The Other Dream Team begins against a backdrop of Soviet oppression well familiar to those alive in the Cold War era and/or those who have seen sports films set in those times; indeed, the expository scene-setting of the 2006 production Freedom’s Fury, a documentary celebrating the 50th anniversary of the success of Hungary’s water polo squad in the Sydney Games, runs nearly identically to The Other Dream Team.
From the familiar springs the unknown. Much of the Other Dream Team’s screen time is devoted to its two primary stars, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis: The former was the first Team USSR player ever drafted into the NBA, while the latter was the first Lithuanian national to actually suit up in the big league. Many outside of Lithuania are surely unaware of the harsh childhoods these two and their families experienced; though this material is all off-court stuff, it nicely sets the table for the film’s recurring themes touched upon by Bill Walton and Jim Lampley. Imagine being forced to play Olympic ball for another country, imagine being unable to show your skills on the professional level at which you deserve to be…
Then there’s the basketball itself. The vintage footage of Sabonis in his incredible prime is fantastic, leaving audiences wanting more, much more. After all, even the most ardent of hoops fans have to this day seen disappointingly disproportionately little of quite possibly the best non-U.S. big man in basketball history.
In fact, if The Other Dream Team has a failing, it is here. Whereas The Dream Team included mouth-watering game clips to wow us with, the Lithuanian version skimps a bit: The entire run through the Olympic Games, including the two games against the Unified Team, is all but glossed over. Also short-shrifted in this documentary is the Grateful Dead connection; sure, the Marciulionis/Golden State Warriors/Team Lithuania connection is in there, but this most fascinating behind-the-scenes machination is unfortunately given little time.
The further exclusion of material on Don Nelson Sr., a.k.a. Donatas Nelsonas, also disappoints a bit but serves to remind of the huge picture director Marius A. Markevicius seeks to paint. While looking back at pasts both inglorious and glorious, Markevicius remains firmly granted in the present. For those wondering just why the hell so much screen time is given to 2011 NBA Draftee Jonas Valančiūnas, for example, don’t worry: There *is* a payoff and, in the finest traditions of popular filmmaking, dreams do come true.
While The Other Dream Team glorified a generation past, another film captured present-day basketball in a culture rarely glimpsed from The West: Iran.
The Iran Job is a smaller-scope film, a documentary following self-described journeyman Kevin Sheppard as he embarks on a season in the mysterious Middle Eastern nation. As it turns out, Sheppard meets head on with history about as unexpected as anything happening in 1989.
This year’s triumph of Argo over Hollywoodland shows just what an attention-grabber the word “Iran” can be in the ‘States, but Sheppard is remarkably cool about what he sees as an adventure at best and furtherment to his professional career at worst.
The outward situation of the Iran Job is familiar, harkening back to the 2009 Finnish film Täynnä tarmoa (“Basket Case”) or 2011’s Phoenix in der Asche (“No Phoenix, No Ashes”) featuring Michael-Hakim Jordan and Germany’s Phoenix Hagen: American guy signed to produce immediate results. In The Iran Job, Sheppard is to lead first-time Iranian Superleague club AS Shiraz into the playoffs. Shiraz’s second allowed foreign-born player is big man Zoran Majkic of Serbia, a quiet sort who, as Sheppard remarks early in the film, is a reminder that the U.S. military was not so long ago bombing his teammate’s country.
Sheppard’s mention of the Serbian conflict opens up that door for the player’s more important travel. Yes, he’s making it in a land of beerlessness, of gender segregation, a country where a doctor may patiently explain that this or that way of life “may be uncomfortable, but it’s Islamic” and where Christmas is nearly unknown. But the focus of The Iran Job slowly shifts to raise the film above the status of simple underdog story.
For amid the trials and tribulations of AS Shiraz, the world turns. Sheppard, Majkic and the guys attempt to play their way up the Superleague table in an eight-month span which sees the election of the first African-American president of the US and the 2009 vote in Iran which would trigger the Green Movement.
But don’t shy away at mention of the word “politics.” Director Till Schauder clearly understands that the human story is what matters. Through that sort of wonderful accident captured by the best documentary films, Sheppard and Majkic befriend three young women named Hilda, Laleh and Elaheh. Not only do the ladies provide succinct explanations for some of the stranger (at least to Westerners) bits of Iranian Islamic culture, these three often serve as the mouthpiece of a frustrated half of the country’s society. Sheppard sees parallels between the African-American’s struggles in the U.S. (and BiE would dare say some similarities exist with life in pre-1990 Soviet republics, if only judging by Sabonis’ reminiscing in The Other Dream Team) with those of these ladies, an emancipation which they believe they seek in vain.
Schauder manages to balance three mainstays of sports documentary filmmaking: the good ol’ “plucky underdog” storyline, the grizzled veteran just looking to a job, and the greater reflection of the games in society. In the end, The Iran Job has two messages, succinctly and poetically imparted: One, that people are people. And two, while Iranian domestic basketball may not be on quite the level as European top leagues, Iran itself may be closer than you think.
Right. Decision time: The Other Dream Team or The Iran Job? Historical significance or zeitgeist? Europe of yesterday or the Middle East of today? Big-budget collection of interviews and vintage clips or seamless one-camera low-budget filmmaking? (Surely Team Lithuania ’92 would understand an underdog’s triumph.) Slick celebration of superstars or workmanlike study of utility player?
The truth is, BiE simply can’t decide. Call it a copout if you must, but in no way can either of these excellent 2012 productions be denied its due. And thus in the category of Best Full-Length Documentary, it’s a tie. Oscar (Robertson)s for both The Other Dream Team and The Iran Job.
In closing, as the old cliche goes, see you at the movies! If the field this year is half as strong as in 2012, the cinema-addicted among basketball fandom will be well pleased indeed.