You don’t have to be a sports fan to love a good sports documentary. In fact, even if you can’t stand watching live sport, and think you’ll feel the same about factual films dedicated to all things active, you’re already primed to enjoy them. Following the Jamaican bobsled team’s Olympic efforts in Cool Runnings, navigating the ups and downs of small-town high school football in Friday Night Lights, watching an FBI agent learn how to surf in Point Break — while you’re experiencing the drama that comes with each in the fictionalised or just plain fictional realm, you’re also enjoying a glimpse into their sporting-focused worlds.
They’re the kind of laughs, thrills and joys that can spring from screen depictions of games often played with bats, balls or boards, with factual efforts delivering all of that and more. Indeed, the best documentaries immerse even the least sporting-inclined viewers in the intricacies of competitive endeavours, informing, entertaining and engaging at the same time — and often threatening to spark a new life-long interest.
We take a look at the eight best examples of the genre, and explain just what makes them stand out.
At the heart of every sport sits many an athlete following their dreams — or trying to. Charting the efforts of two Chicago high school students endeavouring to make basketball more than just a pastime, Steve James cuts to the core of the hopes that buoy not only the two aspiring players, but anyone who has ever worked towards a different future. And yet, as universal as the emotions at its core prove, Hoop Dreams also hones in on specific issues of place, class and race. The combination is powerful, poetic, resonant and revealing, as skilfully edited down from 250 hours of footage.
Many of the most memorable documentaries do little more than watch life go by with an astute eye. For 170 riveting minutes, 1965’s Tokyo Olympiad applies that approach to the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, but Kon Ichikawa’s film isn’t simply an exercise in sports journalism. From observing the teams circle the stadium during the opening ceremony, to honing in on the majesty of many of the physical feats on display, his feature turns viewing the Olympics into an art. The crowd, the colour, the movement, the emotion: nothing this intimate is ever shown on TV, and trying to avoid becoming immersed is futile.
In the right hands, a treasure trove of archival footage can be a source of thrills, chills and illuminating information, as Asif Kapadia understands. He largely styles Senna around the titular Formula One champion’s inimitable presence: on television, in interviews, and in footage captured on the racetrack. Other audio chats with star’s family, friends, colleagues and competitors fill in the gaps; however, where possible Ayrton Senna tells his own tale. In the process, though his plight sadly ended decades ago, the documentary that results still feels urgent and immediate, as if it’s actually happening right in front of viewers’ eyes as they’re watching.
The Endless Summer
Tracking two surfers riding their love of waves around the world, The Endless Summer’s allure is apparent from the moment the first picturesque ocean scenery splashes across the screen, with the 1966 film’s gorgeous cinematography influencing every cinematic depiction of the sport that has followed. Just as beguiling as its stunning sights, however, is the way that filmmaker and narrator Bruce Brown captures the laid-back surfer vibe with not only affection, but precision.
Wheelchair rugby is a brutal, physical, intense all-contact sport many wouldn’t have been aware of until the Academy Award-nominated Murderball brought it to a broader audience. And yet, that’s the least of the engaging 2005 documentary’s charms. As the low-budget effort gets in the of quadriplegic athletes training and preparing for the 2004 Paralympic Games, it delves into a rarely-seen world, breaks down stereotypes and preconceptions about disabled life, and offers an earnest but uplifting real-life account of competitors driven to overcome any obstacle required to win.
When We Were Kings
Leon Gast’s documentary about Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship bout in Zaire is a testament to patience and perseverance, with the two traits ringing true both on-screen and off. Ali demonstrates his determination not only to win, but to shine a light on his political and cultural perspectives, while a raft of recorded interviews place his actions in context. And then, there’s the efforts of Gast, who toiled for more than twenty years afterwards to bring the film about their fray to fruition — and made every moment of his hard-won fight count.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
In The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Seth Gordon understands an important truth: sometimes, even factual tales require a hero and a villain. When he beats the accepted high score on his own Donkey Kong machine, Steve Wiebe provides the former, while unhappy reigning champion Billy Mitchell proves the latter. The sometimes bewildering, often bemusing tussle that follows becomes an engrossing account of the emotions, obsessions, politics and power plays behind the cutthroat world of arcade gaming.
Fire in Babylon
“Babylon is not a place, it’s a practice,” offers Stevan Riley’s chronicle of the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s — and as those who played and watched provide their thoughts, the passion that raged within the record-breaking group couldn’t be more apparent. As a sport, cricket might be known for its often-languid pace; however Riley’s documentary couldn’t be further from that description. The film’s smart, savvy and informative handling of politics and history plays a large part, with the context behind the team’s unbroken streak as intriguing as their on-field antics.
The weekly sports documentary series Vice World of Sports airs every Monday on SBS VICELAND at 6:35pm. Catch up on previous episodes on SBS On Demand: