I love sports docs, and with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, we never seem at a loss for a new niche anecdote to be given a larger forum. But SXSW world première BOUNCE: HOW THE BALL TAUGHT THE WORLD TO PLAY does something very different from most sports docs. It’s not about an athlete, or a team’s historic year, or even about a particular sport. It is about our fundamental drive to play, specifically, to play with a round ball. Following this innate desire from prehistoric man to modern big business sports leagues, BOUNCE looks at the issue from every conceivable angle, even comparing us to animals and the way they play.
BOUNCE explores games as diverse as Maya Ulama to the Scottish game of ‘Ba from the Orkney Islands, which originated from the decapitated head of a disgraced king. Trips to Congolese villages discover craftsmen stitching together handmade balls from anything they can find. Soccer pitches pop up in factory shadows in rural brazil, and dolphins ‘dribble’ a ball under water. Every image is gorgeous, every story is fascinating, and it all leads to one thing – we are a people who need to play. The film also looks at the difference between ‘free play’ and a more rules orientated approach, especially in child development. Equal parts science, history and cultural treatise, BOUNCE looks at our competitive drive, our need to balance commercialization with joy and our universal connection to the games we play, and love. I had a chance to speak with Director Jerome Thelia shortly before his first screening about making the most nebulous sports documentary ever.
Fox is an anthropologist with a PhD from Harvard, who has excavated ancient ball courts in Central America, traced Marco Polo’s route across China, and bicycled Africa’s Rift Valley in search of human origins. Fox found his son’s question fascinating and set off to answer it. That work became the book “The Ball: Discovering the Object of the Game.” Thelia and Fox had been friends for some fifteen years. “When he told me he was writing a book, the first thing I said was like, ‘Dude, you gotta include Pong,’ says Thelia, “when you think about that question you see this incredible unbroken arc that stretches throughout history and throughout the world.”
Unbroken and unifying, the ball is something we all intrinsically understand. “There’s no place in the world that you can go to where throwing a ball into a crowd of people doesn’t mean, ‘Hey, let’s play, let’s do something, you know, let’s do something positive together,’” the director says. To try to answer why, the film looks at as many different permutations of this as possible, starting with some really strange, obscure varieties. “It’s kind of like by stepping out of our comfort zone,” he says, “we can start to understand how this stuff works.”
The film takes a bit of a different approach than the book, which is more of a first-person travelogue, but there were definitely some can’t miss destinations on the schedule. “The first thing we knew we wanted to do is the Orkney Islands,” says Thelia, “because that was a chapter in John’s book, and we were like, we cannot NOT do that.” This initial shoot became a bit of a test, as the filmmaker discovered he could get something compelling on film, and use it as a springboard for other locations. Some locations were obvious, like Brazil during the World Cup. Others were more esoteric, like finding handmade balls in Africa. “There was something about that idea,” he says, “that kids, adults, who are in incredibly difficult situations, who really have nothing, take the time and the energy to make a ball, out of trash, and play with it.” The idea for the sequence came from the photographic work of Jessica Hilltout (check out some examples here). They met with the photographer and asked her where they should go to film in Africa, “and she was like, ‘Go anywhere and you’ll find that’” he says.
For a film that starts so joyful, BOUNCE ends with an extended section about professional sports, that was fascinating but sort of a bummer. With sports taking on all the aspects of big business, and the competitive model being handed down to children, the sense of play seems to be slipping away. In fact, sports have probably changed more in the last twenty years than in the hundred years before that. “I think in a lot of ways,” says Thelia, “we trade the spontaneity, the DIY-ness that ball games sort of have built into them, for like, great entertainment, for amazing aesthetic feats of performance that you see in professional sports.” The same is true in all mediums, he points out, even blockbuster movies being the obvious end product of the professionalism of the art of film. “Those are movies that are really kind of made by factories of people,” he says, “rather than the sort of artisanal, self-made, locally based, organic, … like food, you know? They’ve had this trajectory of turning increasingly into industrial-made products.”
But there will always be a group of people who want to return to the more ‘organic’ version of the game. “The amazing thing about play and ball-games is that it’s the most resilient behavior that we have in us,” he says, “it’ll never truly be threatened because we’ll always wanna do it. I think we can enjoy the amazing performances, we can enjoy the Michael Jordans, and we can enjoy just, you know, everything that professional sport and spectacle has to offer, and sort of keep doing our own things.”
I’m a huge Minnesota Twins fans, and the conversation with Thelia reminded me of something that Torii Hunter has been saying for year, that baseball has a problem with African-American youth. That no one is playing baseball in the urban areas anymore, and that’s why you are seeing less and less African-American players entering the MLB each year. He’s a very smart player and he has been very outspoken about this issue for years. Baseball seems to be loosing its grassroots nature.
I asked Thelia his perspective on that. “If you look at cricket in India,” he offers, “it is both the ultimate, very professional spectacle, and like, the grassroots games that literally tens of millions of kids play in improvised environments all over India. They have a really healthy balanced relationship. And I think you’re right, in the US, we have sort of lost that. And part of that is, as we point out, parents are really worried about what their kids are going to be doing by themselves. They feel a lot safer if their kids are playing in a Little League game that’s highly managed and highly organized. But that, by its very nature, sort of limits both access by certain kids and certain social circles, or by race, and it also creates a much more uniform mentality.” Thelia believes that just like artisanal beer and mom and pop restaurants are making a big push against corporate interests, it’s only a matter of time where that trajectory swings back toward more localized versions of sport, baseball included.
“I think it’s just a matter of time before people say, ‘Hey, baseball is important. And if we want baseball to reflect our true needs and desires, and the true joy that we get from playing the game and watching the game, we need to do things differently,’” he says, “we need to let kids make up their own games. We need to stop worrying so much about them hurting each other and just let them play.”
“Everybody who plays, including the parents who want their kids to be better,” the director says, “understands in their heart of hearts it’s not about whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game, right? And that as soon as play is outcome-based, whether it’s for money, whether it’s for victory, whether it’s to prove something about who you are, then you’re missing the point. … I don’t blame parents for wanting their kids to succeed, because there’s a lot of pressure on that in society, but again, I think people will come around and say, ‘Hey, just play. You guys will work it out.’ The beauty of play is that it’s not a means to an end. The goal of play is only to play. Period.”
BOUNCE: HOW THE BALL TAUGHT THE WORLD TO PLAY screens one more time at SXSW, today (Saturday) at 2:00pm at the Topfer Theatre. I would be shocked if the film didn’t play a ton more festivals and get a major release, it is one of the most well-made and thought-provoking documentaries I’ve seen in the last year. I should also mention that one of the editors and producers on BOUNCE is Andrew Napier, one of my favorite filmmakers and a guy who seems to have in hand in so many cool projects at one time (he produced and edited the Of Montreal Documentary THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL, edited BEFORE I DISAPPEAR (SXSW 2014) and directed and produced The Young Turks documentary MAD AS HELL, which is playing theaters right now.