By Annie Resnikoff
The sports documentary is a growing genre that mixes pop culture and sports news. Instead of watching game coverage with commentary and then flipping the channel to a human-interest story, sports documentaries combine the best of both genres.
One of ESPN’s newest 30 for 30 films, Of Miracles and Men, directed by Jonathon Hock, showcases this trend. It tells the tale of the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament, in which the U.S. surprisingly beat the Soviet Union. However, this film is told from the perspective of the Soviets, to whom this loss represented a historic moment.
To non-sports fans, this movie may not seem to be interesting at first. However, Hock creates a film about sports history and political history, connecting various interests. The impact this game held across the U.S. was powerful to all who watched, but this side of the story highlights what it meant to those watching from the other side of the world.
This film highlights how sports documentaries incorporate artistically appealing elements. For example, the opening scene depicted one athlete walking through Central Park, with an intense voiceover and dramatic lighting.Of Miracles and Men is not Hock’s only sports documentary. The credits of the eight-time Emmy Award winner include over a dozen films, most of which take a sports phenomenon and go deeper into the story.
The genre has also expanded beyond the 30 for 30 series. A film directed by Ouisie Shapiro, Nine Innings from Ground Zero illustrates sports documentaries’ depth. The film focuses on the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks. Only a month after the 9/11 tragedy, the game was emotionally charged for New Yorkers. The film shows the players’ thoughts, adding a human side to the story.
Sports documentaries have grown in popularity. ESPN, HBO and movie studios have invested in delving into the stories beyond the field or locker room. They provide depth and detail while telling the story of a driven team or standout player. Directors have created an industry in sports documentaries by highlighting real-life dramas that occur in sports every day.
Q and A with Hock
1. How did you become interested in making sports documentaries?
My two favorite things growing up were sports and movies. When I graduated college, I thought the only place that combined the two was NFL Films, and I wrote a letter to Steve Sabol, their president. Steve wrote me back, and though they weren't hiring at the time, I did get hired two years later. Patience and big dreams have to go hand in hand sometimes.
2. Where do you get your inspiration for the topics you choose to film?
My inspiration for the topics I film comes from a variety of sources. The most recent 30 for 30 I directed, Of Miracles and Men, came about because an old friend, the producer Don Kempf, emailed me a quote from the Hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov. Larionov said that he thought the 1980 Soviet team, which he was cut from by the way, was the greatest team of all time, even though they're remembered for a game they lost. Don suggested that it would make a great 30 for 30 and I agreed! How interesting to me to hear the most famous American sports story from the Soviet perspective. That was four years ago, and we finally got it on the air this month.
3.What was your biggest challenge while making Of Miracles and Men?
The biggest challenge in making Of Miracles and Men was convincing the Soviet players to do interviews. They really weren't very interested in talking to an American who wanted to talk about this game they'd just as soon forget. But we had a Russian co-producer, Kristina Piseeva, who was very persuasive, and she got us into the room with them. Once I started to ask them about things like their childhood, their coach Tarasov (whom they all loved), and generally treated them like human beings and not simply the "other guys" that the Americans defeated, they warmed to it and we had great interviews with them all.
4. What did you learn about the Russian hockey team when you were filming that was most surprising?
The most surprising thing about the Russians was their sense of humor about the game. They were able to discuss their lowest moment with candor and a smile, and no bitterness, even though some disappointment does remain. I think their humor was very important to making them "human," which is really what the film is about: we're all human.
5. You said that the 1980 Russian-American hockey game was one of the greatest American sports stories in history. What are other comparable stories in your opinion?
I don't think there ever was or will be another sporting event that will capture the imagination of the entire country, unless society becomes some kind of Hunger Games type of world where things are completely different! It's hard to imagine today, but we were taught from birth that the Soviets were our enemy out to destroy our "way of life." And because the Olympics were non-professional, it felt more pure and more meaningful. Today, the athletes finish the Olympic hockey and just return to their pro teams. Then, this was it, a once-in-a-lifetime shot. And it seemed impossible before it happened. I don't think all those elements ever came together before or will come together again.
6. Is there a transition point in time where you feel sports documentaries became appealing to people other than sports enthusiasts?
I think that the success of the 30 for 30 franchise on ESPN has helped sports documentaries become more pervasive, but I think it goes back to Hoop Dreams in the 1990s that a sports story crossed over into the greater world of film. There was talk of that film getting a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture, not just Best Documentary. That film showed that sports were a window into "real" society and real issues. This is something 30 for 30 does regularly now, but then it was groundbreaking.
7. What advice do you have for aspiring young filmmakers?
For aspiring young filmmakers I'd advise watching as many films as you can and then pursuing a type of filmmaking that appeals to you. What I mean is to learn what great filmmakers do by studying their work, really thinking about it and letting it soak into you, then try to tell stories in a style that is true to yourself. Also, reading is equally valuable. What the camera inside your mind does when you read is the same as when you watch a film – taking images and turning them into a story. Read, read, read, and watch a lot of movies!