Lessons in Documentary Filmmaking


Documentaries are typically broccoli. They’re good for you, and that intrinsic trait is evident in their taste and feel, that bland but wholesome texture, that fiber that helps clear out all that crap you’ve been consuming.

I resisted Murderball when it came out this past summer. In spite of the considerable attention and acclaim it received before its release, I let the film slip out of the theater without my patronage. I do not like broccoli. More importantly, no critic convinced me that this wasn’t your typical highborn documentary, sturdy but fundamentally dull and didactic.

I wasn’t alone in avoiding the movie. With a media buzz that most mainstream movies would envy and nearly universal praise, Murderball grossed less than $2 million worldwide. (Look at the data here. Have you heard of Snowriders II, which took in 50 percent more than Murderball in domestic receipts?)

This was a monumental failure of marketing, because Murderball is not broccoli at all. It’s a perfectly prepared and cooked hunk of meat — juicy, spicy, filling, tasty, and full of protein. Perhaps dry-rubbed pork tenderloin with a sun-dried-tomato barbecue sauce.

Is it healthy? Kinda. More satisfying than broccoli? Absolutely. It’s the perfect movie to show to people who think they don’t like documentaries, because it transcends the genre; above all else, it’s a very good sports movie — compelling, fun, smart, and accessible.

Yes, Murderball does have a Noble Subject: quadriplegic rugby players specifically, and quadriplegia generally. Yes, it does have an Uplifting Message: that people who have lost full or partial use of all four limbs can still do normal things. Are you bored yet?

One thing that distinguishes Murderball is that its conception of quadriplegic men doing “normal things” is actually downright normal; the film’s wheelchair-bound subjects joke around, play contact sports, masturbate, hurt their wives’ feelings, cuss, and act like petty pricks.

Murderball takes an obvious, potentially fatally earnest documentary subject — people with disabilities — and approaches it with uncommon energy, freshness, candor, and humor. The movie is almost certainly overrated — it does not have the audacity and singularity of, say, The Aristocrats or the work of Errol Morris — but it’s an exemplary documentary: visually dynamic, narratively strong, structurally clever, and never stiff or preachy. Aspiring documentarians: Watch and learn!

Lesson 1: Be honest.

Filmmakers Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro don’t treat these guys like children, belaboring every menial accomplishment and tiptoeing around their faults so that nobody could think they’re anything but angels. The film is clear-eyed and unsentimental but it’s also amazingly warm. Rubin and Shapiro recognize that it’s the rough edges that make their subjects human, endearing, and tangible.

Lesson 2: Access is critical.

Intimacy doesn’t happen quickly, and that’s especially true when some sort of recording device is involved. After his wife toasts him at their anniversary dinner, longtime quad-rugby player and current coach Joe Soares raises a glass to his team. That embarrassing, horrifying, telling detail comes only when subjects completely forget they’re being filmed. Compare Murderball to Spellbound, in which the filmmakers didn’t spend enough time with spelling-bee contestants or their families to get beyond their façades. Spellbound is engaging and suspenseful, but it’s also wafer-thin.

Lesson 3: Tell a story; don’t write an essay.

Although Murderball is about something — quad rugby — it isn’t only about that. Many documentaries make the mistake of exploring a topic rather than telling a story, but Murderball has a beautiful narrative shape.

First and foremost, there’s a budding rivalry between the long-dominant Americans and the Canadian squad. The boys from up north are coached by Soares, who in a snit about being left off the United States team basically defects. Murderball’s landmarks are the heated contests between these two countries, reaching an apex in a semifinal match at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens.

Then there’s Mark Zupan, the tattooed, goateed, foul-mouthed star of the United States squad. He serves as a foil to Soares — they don’t seem at all friendly toward each other, probably because on the surface they’re a lot alike. But Zupan has an open face and a generous nature that no amount of body art and facial hair can hide. That sense of core decency is confirmed by the casual way he renews a friendship that everybody thought was beyond repair.

Lesson 4: Find a villain.

Soares is an asshole. He’s the hard-driving, hard-headed coach of the side you’re supposed to boo in any sports movie — akin to that sneering, frothing Aryan coach in The Karate Kid, for example. No matter what he does, you want to hiss at him. Soares sparks a rooting interest — in the other team, of course — and that’s an effective way to combat the natural tendency to cheer for all those courageous boys. Best of all, he relishes his role; when he’s accused of being the quad-rugby equivalent of Benedict Arnold, he doesn’t deny it, but notes that when Arnold betrayed his country, people died.

Lesson 5: Show your villain’s depth.

Villains are supposed to beat their wives and children. Soares doesn’t do that — at least not that we see — but he’s tough on his son, who is more interested in music than sports. After a mid-film heart attack, Soares’ acerbic disposition hasn’t changed much, but his behavior toward his son has: He busts his ass to get to one of his concerts after a game.

Lesson 6: Keep it short.

Murderball runs less than 90 minutes. It’s brisk and fast, and there’s little fat on it. Quad rugby, for example, is succinctly described through a diagram.

It’s the rare movie that actually feels too short. When Keith Cavill is holding the helmet he was wearing when a motorcross accident paralyzed him, the filmmakers cut away from the moment too quickly, never letting the audience see his reaction. And the terse explanation of the sport makes it seem as if there’s little strategy or nuance — which is contradicted by Soares’ success as a coach.

Lesson 7: Be playful and creative.

Despite what is fundamentally a serious topic, Murderball is (where appropriate) fun and nimble. The filmmakers mounted cameras below wheelchairs, giving a sense of quad rugby’s movement and violence. The introduction of various teams is done in a dramatic style that would make Sam Raimi proud.

And there are sharp structural touches, too. When Cavill is introduced, he’s too new to quadriplegia to play wheelchair rugby — just learning what his body can and can’t do. He doesn’t seem to belong in this particular movie; it looks as if he’s only in it to give the audience an idea of what it’s likely to be freshly paralyzed. Cavill eventually makes a connection to the sport, though, and Rubin and Shapiro use him wonderfully throughout; he adds a different perspective to the movie — the long view — while also being part of the story.

He’s one of many engaging characters in the film, and Murderball’s emotional wallop is a function of viewers being wrapped up in a strong narrative involving people they care about. Applied together, these lessons — particularly the first three — can create movie magic. Even in documentaries. Especially in documentaries.

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