When the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival decided to feature a sports sidebar, Steve James became an obvious candidate for curator. James, who along with longtime co-director Peter Gilbert screened At the Death House Door, a portrait of a death row chaplain, last year at Full Frame, first made his name with the now-legendary 1990s basketball documentary Hoop Dreams.
The film, universally considered one of the most important documentaries of the decade and also one of its most commercially successful, introduced aspiring basketball players Arthur Agee and William Gates to film audiences and deftly presented the tumultuous, day-to-day living conditions of America's inner cities.
But another hallmark of James' career is his versatility and his commitment to films that tackle difficult social and ethical topics. At the Death House Door explored the psychological toll exacted upon those responsible for carrying out executions in Texas, while an earlier film called Stevie detailed the troubled existence of a man whom James had mentored a decade prior.
It was from that rounded perspective that James approached his selections for Full Frame's 2009 thematic program, This Sporting Life.
"I didn't want to choose a collection of greatest hits, what I think are the top 10 sports films ever made," James said. "That wouldn't be interesting, and audiences probably would have seen many of those films already. I took a very eclectic approach with a focus on the overlooked features, and the process evolved over time."
The ultimate choices for This Sporting Life, James said, reflect his own perspectives on filmmaking yet also offer opportunities to audiences that may be predisposed to a certain style of documentary.
"I looked at films that impacted me when I was younger and resonated with those audiences," he said, "but I also looked at films within the documentary realm that pushed the genre in new directions."
James' direction as a filmmaker began more conventionally. He cites Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Penn as influences and intended to pursue a career as a director of dramatic films. He also possesses a journalism background, however, and that's what caused his professional trajectory to shift.
"I was on a career path toward working somewhere like NPR," he said, "but documentary filmmaking became the synthesis of my interests. I wanted to tell stories and do features, finding people at interesting crossroads in their lives."
Hoop Dreams was revolutionary both in terms of scope and due to its immense popularity. In fact, when the film failed to gain a nomination for best feature documentary at the Academy Awards, a public outcry ensued and the selection process was modified thereafter. In 2007, the International Documentary Association named Hoop Dreams the No. 1 documentary in film history.
The project's initial vision was to follow the activities of young players at a single basketball court in Chicago, but it quickly grew into a labor of love with a far broader scope.
"We started out looking for the one iconic playground, but what we found were kids who were more interesting. We then wanted to leave the playground and asked ourselves what would happen if we could check in on the kids and their families once per month, or once per week, and it went from there."
The result was a five-year shoot and more than 250 hours of footage that illuminated the most intimate—and painful—details of his subject's lives in Chicago's struggling urban communities. In one of the film's most famous scenes, Agee's father briefly engages his son on an outside basketball court before striding off casually to buy drugs in plain view of both his son and the camera.
By then, the father had left the family and Agee's mother was forced to go on welfare, a plunge into destitution that at one point results in a disconnection of electric power.
James then had a decision to make: Would he take a classically dispassionate approach to documenting his subjects, or would he intervene?
"We made no pretense of journalistic distance," he said. "When the power was turned off, we kept filming and told Sheila [Agee's mother] that it was important to document what happened, to show people that she wasn't a bad person or a 'welfare queen.'
"We did cobble together some money to help out and decided not to put that in the film in order not to appear self-serving. No, we're not journalists, but I would argue that it makes the film more truthful rather than less truthful."
Unfortunately, the truth didn't become any less painful for the Agee and Gates families after the cameras stopped rolling. Gates' brother Curtis, who is featured prominently in the film as a fallen hoops star trying to live vicariously through his younger brother, was killed in a carjacking in 2001. Arthur's father, "Bo" Agee, was shot to death in 2004.
The human tragedies involved in the presentation of the story, and its aftermath, overshadow the actual sports aspects of the film, and James himself views the basketball as secondary to the film's legacy.
"The recruiting business end of basketball has mushroomed, so that has all changed," James said. "The film is no longer current in terms of where the sport has gone, but the dreams are timeless. These kids face tremendous hurdles, and this America still exists."
The enduring quality of the film owes not only to the trust the families developed for James, but also the trust he and his team developed for them.
"The key is to find subjects who have something to say, that's part of the hook for the story," he said. "Part of the pleasure as a viewer is getting to know the main subjects and to become part of their lives.
"With Hoop Dreams, we endeavored to let the families speak through the films. There's an epic quality, but it remained intimate over the years."
Tragedy plays a pivotal role in James' selections for This Sporting Life as well.
Fallen Champ (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.) is a biopic of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Though released more than 15 years ago, Barbara Kopple's film remains a relevant portrait of one of the charismatic and villainous athletes of the past 25 years. It's also noteworthy for the fact that Tyson himself would not agree to contribute to the project, forcing Kopple—an Academy Award-winner for documentaries American Dream and Harlan County, USA—to be at her most creative.
In Paper Lion (Saturday, 7:45 p.m.), Alan Alda stars as the writer George Plimpton and reenacts the episode when he joined the Detroit Lions as a quarterback, a stunt that happened with the permission of the team but was kept secret from the players. The film, which was released in 1968, is significant because technically it's fiction, but it is based on a true story and many of the actual players make appearances.
"Paper Lion was very unusual for when it was made," James said. "It's dated in some ways now, but it blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. I watched that movie with my whole family when I was 13, and my family never went to movies."
There's nothing artificial about the raging gyrations of the bulls or the raging testosterone of the human males in Rank (Thursday, 12:30 p.m.), an exploration into the world of bull-riding.
"I liked Rank because the director [John Hyams] took an artistic approach to very gritty subject matter," James said. "He shot that film with a poetic eye."
Zidane (Friday, 7:30 p.m.) is a highly unconventional work in which co-directors Philippe Parreno and Daniel Gordon filmed the great French soccer player Zinedine Zidane—and almost nothing else—during a single match using 17 different cameras.
"Of all the films in the program, Zidane has the most singular focus," James said. "The audience can ruminate and reflect on its own passion for sports."
For viewers more interested in lighter fare, the Paul Newman romp Slap Shot (Sunday, 7 p.m.) also will be screened. Based in part on the minor league hockey (anyone remember the Raleigh IceCaps?) experiences of Ned Dowd, brother of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, the film is considered a comedy classic and will bring a spirited, 1977 levity to the proceedings.
Although Hoop Dreams isn't technically part of 10-film series This Sporting Life, this year's festival wouldn't be complete without it: On Saturday, April 4, at 10 a.m. in Fletcher Hall, Full Frame presents the film in a special free community screening. James will be present along with William Gates, one of the two players featured in the film.