Canadian Sport Film Festival goes beyond the games

A great sports flick can get audiences jumping out of their seats with excitement or leave them in tears. Sometimes both. The seventh annual Canadian Sport Film Festival, playing this weekend in Toronto, features movies that take us past the field of play to shed light on the struggle and joy of sports, writes Scott Russell.

7th-anniversary program playing in Toronto this weekend

Fuahea Semi, aka Bruno Banani, is the subject of a documentary about a Tonga luger who attempts to qualify for the 2010 Olympics and finds himself at the centre of a strange marketing ploy. (Canadian Sport Film Festival)

Professor Russell Field of the University of Manitoba's Department of Kinesiology and Recreation Management is gearing up for the red carpet treatment as he makes his way to Toronto and the TIFF Bell Lightbox this weekend.

He's the Executive Director of the Canadian Sport Film Festival, which is celebrating its seventh anniversary this season.  

It's an acknowledgement that the athletic pursuit is a booming genre when it comes to the big screen.  

But this is not a new phenomenon. One need only think of classic sports films such as Chariots of Fire, Seabiscuit, Friday Night Lights and Field of Dreams. Sports and the movies often combine to create some of the best redemptive and dramatic moments in our consciousness, not to mention big bang for your buck when it comes to sheer entertainment value.  

There's something about a good sports flick that can get moviegoers crying or out of their seats and collectively cheering. 

This edition of the festival boasts 11 feature films and 16 shorts from around the world, including a number of Canadian and international premieres. There were, according to Field, more than 200 films submitted for inclusion in the festival.

"We want people to come to the theatre and not solely be entranced by sport but to understand ways in which it intersects with human lives," he says. "There seems to be universal accessibility to stories about sport. It's a common language that we all understand."

This year's crop of films is populated with documentaries surrounding gender equality on various fields of play, the historical account of trailblazing African-American tennis star Althea Gibson as well as a quirky story of a popular running race where the athletes guzzle beer as part of the competition.

Highlighting the roster are three films which speak to the ubiquitous struggle that is an element of the sporting experience. As Field puts it, there's much more to consider here than the score or what happens in any given game.

"It's good to think about sport beyond the highlights," he says. "At the festival we're all about the story behind the sport."

The first of the anchor films is the American documentary We Must Go, which tells the tale of deposed U.S. national men's soccer team coach Bob Bradley, who is hired to try and lead Egypt to the 2014 FIFA World Cup. He attempts this in an era of political and social turmoil, and the Pharaohs ultimately fail. But the narrative is about Bradley's effort to aid the players as they go about uniting a badly divided nation.

"It's a story of recovery," Field says. "It reflects a personal and political coming together in the face of an enormous event."

There's also First: The Official Film of the London 2012 Olympic Games, as U.K. director Caroline Rowland follows the stories of 12 first-time Olympians. Some win but some don't, and the appeal of the movie is about coming to grips with the agonizingly elusive dream of becoming a champion.

"For better or worse, people have this idea that sport is a meritocracy," Field says. "It plays upon the belief many of us have that sport rewards us in a way that doesn't always happen in our everyday lives. It doesn't always work out that way."

Finally, there is Being Bruno Banani, the controversial epic of the only luger from the South Pacific island of Tonga and his attempt to qualify for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The main character, a 21-year-old computer science student named Fuahea Semi, is coached by Germans and forced to change his name by an agency to Bruno Banani, which is the moniker of a German underwear company. All of this occurs as part of a hoax in order to circumvent stringent IOC advertising regulations.

"This is about aspiration on the surface," Field points out. "But beyond that it's about the ethics of marketing."

The aim of the Canadian Sport Film Festival is to entertain and capitalize on the undeniable fascination and obsession that the public has with the sporting act in general. But there are very few films in the program that deal with mainstream, professional sports leagues.

Instead, the skew is to the place that sport occupies in the wider society.  All of which means the big screen becomes the box seat where we watch what happens beyond the field of play.

The entire program for the 7th Annual Canadian Sport Film Festival, as well as trailers for all of the movies and documentaries which will be screened this coming weekend at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, is available here.


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