Sunday, October 12, 2008

Competing With Speed Freaks

I'm not a particularly competitive person.  I didn't grow up watching sports on television, rooting for a favorite team or getting drunk with friends during a big game.  Instead, I pursued a more solitary path and have always been a bit of a loner.  

While watching two documentaries to be shown later this month at SFIndie Fest's DocFest, I was particularly struck by the contrast between two unique types of competition:  in one, the participant is basically competing against himself.  In the other, the participant is competing full throttle against an opposing team.  Each sport offers participants a limited time frame in which to win an important championship due to the particularity of the skills involved and the impending limitations of adulthood.

Let's begin with the more athletic documentary. 

A joint creation of Helen Hood Scheer and Scott B. Morgan, Jump! explores the world of competitive rope jumping. Among its featured athletes are Tori (a fiercely determined 12-year-old from West Virginia whose speed is even more remarkable considering her asthma), Marcus (a 19-year-old black male from Ohio who confesses that "without jump rope, I would be dead or in jail"), Houston's Nick (18) and Jeff (19), who create such difficult jumping routines that they can rarely be performed without making mistakes, and Lee Reisig (a 20-year-old from Idaho who earned his nickname  -- "The Mad Scientist" -- after meticulously cataloguing every possible jump and, in so doing, created what he now calls "The Jumphabet/Tricktionary").

The film follows a variety of participants through a series of regional and national competitions, ending with the 2006 biannual world competition in Toronto.  As one watches these jumpers struggle with the challenges of increasing their speed, perfecting tricks to be performed with single ropes or "Double Dutch" style, and coping with injuries, one thing stands out.  These participants all love to jump rope so much that -- when they meet up at competitions --  instead of trying to psych each other out, many share their tricks and try to learn as much as possible from their rivals. 

There is a great grace and true sportsmanship in the way these young men and women view their fellow athetes which reminded me of the break dancers in Planet B-Boy.  As someone who has never been the slightest bit athletic (and is actually a major klutz), watching Jump! proved to be most intriguing -- if only because it's hard to imagine some people moving quite that fast. Don't take my word for it -- see for yourself:

A far more cerebral and dysfuncional set of contestants is on display in Debate Team, which will receive its world premiere in San Francisco, the city that hosted the 2005 national championship.  If you thought Spellbound, and Wordplay were populated with cunning linguists and shameless lexicographers, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Have you ever wondered how political spinmeisters (such as the slimy Tucker Bounds and the astringent Nancy Pfotenhauer) manage to lie through their teeth without ever getting thrown off message?  Take a look at what happens at summer debate camps and on campuses around the country as debate contestants attempt to argue their cases at close to 360 words per minute.  

Debate Team doesn't just show the amount of research and discipline necessary to lay a foundation for debate preparation, it holds a mirror up to the near psychotic behavior of some contestants.  Unlike the relatively humble players in Jump! there is more than enough ego in B. Douglas Robbins' film to go around (be sure to read his Director's Statement, which describes his total lack of filmmaking experience prior to Debate Team and the incredible hurdles he had to overcome to complete the project).

Once Robbins met up with former debate whiz Mike Miller, he understood how to make his film. Instead of just focusing on fast-talking college students, he used the framework of a debate championship to show how Americans obsess over winning, how they react to losing, and what kinds of ego loss their obsessive-addictive behavior patterns can lead to.

For a first feature effort, the film is surprisingly strong.  It's filled with dysfunctional geniuses who are a hair's breadth away from losing touch with reality.  

This is one documentary that is well worth your time. Here's the trailer:

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