A good sports documentary
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - August 26, 2019 - 12:00am

“We make a deal with the future: today will be darker, so that tomorrow will be brighter.” – “Religion of Sports”

The last few years have seen an explosion of international sports documentaries. The lower price and easier availability of HD cameras, along with more platforms for distribution, have enticed filmmakers to get into the game. The wild success of low-budget point-of-view productions also gives the rest of the field hope. Kobe Bryant’s 2017 animated short “Dear Basketball” won an Oscar. Though not a documentary, it was practically a first effort, further encouraging indie producers. It was predated slightly by Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary “Icarus,” a dangerous, first-person exploration of doping in international cycling. Fogel drugged himself to show how Lance Armstrong got past World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) tests, and personally passed 15 of them. He then connected his experience with institutionalized doping in Russia, with Fogel’s source eventually being forced to enter the US Witness Protection Program.

The growth of Netflix, Vice.com and other non-network platforms has both expanded and sliced up the market. Specialized documentaries and documentary series focus on several sports from CrossFit to basketball to lifting stones. Series focus on such obscure topics as basketball players in Native American reservations, to also-rans in several sports. Series like “Fight World” and “Religion of Sports” illuminate the culture and spirituality of sports around the globe.

In the Philippines, sports documentary production is still a very young field. The cost of production, the time needed, and the uncertainty of returns discourage many potential producers. Many choose to do more topical films easily linked to news. The turnaround time for a documentary is at least six months, unlike Hollywood films which take three years from concept to release. Notable Filipino productions include “Manny” on world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, and “The Bladed Hand” on the history and impact of arnis internationally.

What does it take to create a world-class documentary film? 

A great story. Sport intrinsically involves sacrifice, giving up something to become great at a sport. That is the backbone of any sports story, the prevalence of discomfort and pain in exchange for comfort and glory. The transformation, often more than the success, makes the story compelling. The hard work and unpredictable nature of eventual reward provide the suspense audiences crave.

Access. You can tell when a production merely recycled stock footage or used second-hand sources. The result looks dated and forced. Restoring video is also a laborious and expensive process, so producers often settle for grainy news or home videos with dropouts. This simply shows that they couldn’t - or didn’t bother to - seek out the person or persons involved to get fresh interviews. Your value lies in the trust your subjects give you. This writer made it a point to access as many personalities as possible for “PBA, A Nation’s Passion.” The result was evident: 92 interviews in a 90-minute film (88 of which I did personally). We were fortunate to record Baby Dalupan and Danny Florencio before they passed away, and Samboy Lim three weeks before his stroke. If you don’t have direct access, you might as well not do it, as it will come off half-baked.

Research. You have to do your homework. You have to ask the right questions. In the Philippine setting, pre-interviews are abandoned for the sake of expediency. But what you save in time and effort results in shallow interviews with less impact, and missed details. And once you go into the editing room and realize you’re missing something, you can’t fabricate it. Your only option would be to reshoot. 

Time. I’m skeptical of local “documentary” series, primarily because I’m familiar with the low level if resources put into them. Though there are exceptions, it puts a disproportionate strain on the field producers on the ground. Research, discussion and analysis take time. The voraciousness of television in particular results in watered-down content. Remember “pito-pito” movies? That was brought about by the need to have enough inventory to fill a weekly time slot. One week to write a script and one week to shoot? Unrealistic.

Video research. Show what you say. Sports stories always build up to an event, an event you cannot recreate. This means you’ll need permission to use another broadcasting entity’s material, or pay for it. Photos will not be enough, no matter how dramatic. Be clear about rights issues. For long-form, you need global permission for many years, or risk getting sued. Even videos uploaded on sharing sites like YouTube or Facebook need permission to be reused. Photos can be used if processed. It is a business, after all.

Distribution strategy. Why are you doing a documentary? Who is your audience? Are you expecting financial return or seeking recognition? You have to be clear about your targets from the get-go. Documentary production is expensive, particularly when it entails travel. Who is going to watch it? This influences writing, treatment, language, subtitling and distribution channels. Truth be told, sports stories are underdogs in awards competitions, unless there is mainstream audience awareness or overwhelming dramatic impact. 

You need to be committed to the story you’re going to tell. You need to know where you’re headed before you start driving. If not, you won’t be doing your subject matter justice.

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