Tribeca Film Festival 2011: 'Fire in Babylon' and 'Shakespeare High'
Documentaries on West Indian cricket and a high school Shakespeare competition remind us that everybody loves a winner.
When the British Empire was shedding colonies in the postwar decades, new nations emerged in South Asia and Africa, as well as the West Indies of the Caribbean. During the 1960s, islands that once depended on slave labor to produce sugar and rum shucked off their former owners. Stevan Riley’s rambunctious documentary Fire in Babylon doesn’t get much into the details of how native populations gained their independence. Instead, it focuses on the immediate aftermath, on the creation of a sports dynasty.
Like all the great sports films, Riley’s isn’t really about sports at all. Rather, in telling the story of how the West Indian cricket team, the Windies, achieved a remarkable dominance, it also shows how a people long relegated to the shadows asserted themselves as people of substance and skill and pride. The phenomenon of a former colony besting its one-time master at a game of the master’s invention is not a new one. But Riley’s film achieves a rousing energy in showing how West Indian islands like Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica fielded a pan-West Indian team of cricketers who won title after title.
Fire in Babylon at times seem little more than a clip show, but given the drama of that footage, there is little to complain about in that characterization. Cutting interviews with former Windies players in between images of great test matches with formidable rivals like the Australians, Riley shows a team of men so thoroughly focused on excellence that it’s borderline frightening. Faced with an Australian team whose bowlers were whipping the ball so fast that it could leave deep purple bruises or crack a jaw, the Windies decided to beat the Aussies at their own game. Once derided as lightweight entertainers, the “Calypso Clowns,” the Windies new aggressive style inspired another sort of name-calling, as the team was branded “terrorists.”
Labels or not, the Windies cranked through year after year of victories. Back home, fans thrilled to watching their team manhandle opponents, a feeling summed up with admirable succinctness by former Bob Marley bandmate Bunny Wailer: “This is like slaves whipping the ass of their masters."
Alex Rotaru’s fun, shamelessly heart-wrenching documentary Shakespeare High offers another story of achievement. Here high school thespians put their all into preparing for the annual Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival (DTASC). For the competition, each school presents a short take on three different plays (Othello, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in this case), which can be either original interpretations or straight-from-the-text renditions.
The film combines two of the most popular tropes in current nonfiction film: public schooling and a little known regional competition. Whether or not it crosses the line into whatever the equivalent of mugging would be in documentary filmmaking isn’t debatable. Whether or not that matters probably is.
Of the 50-odd schools participating in DTASC, Rotaru follows just a few, break down along sharply differing socioeconomic strata, in ways predictable and not. Nearly all of the kids are truly engaging, and not just because they are budding actors. Many of them come from extremely poor or troubled backgrounds (several have recently been involved in gangs) or have endured ugly tragedies. Still, they seem fully optimistic and focused.
Serving as a brief distraction from the young actors' stories, DTASC alumnae like Richard Dreyfuss, Mare Winningham, Val Kilmer, and Kevin Spacey (whose Trigger Street Productions made the film) talk in windy fashion about the importance of arts education and drama competitions like this one. As each has attended one of the schools profiled here, the stars' appearances offer the hope that doesn’t need to spoken here, that some winners of the competition might go on to do great success in theater or Hollywood.
Shakespeare High underscores its pitch for increased funding for public school arts education by showcasing the talent of those competitors from unprivileged backgrounds, holding their own against those from the right side of the tracks. One former gang member from a charter school in a poor, mostly Hispanic area, takes the reins as director. As he puts it, “Just because we’re not rich and white” doesn’t mean they can’t win.
By contrast, the kids from Los Angeles County School for the Arts (LACHSA) are portrayed as stuck-up villains. Their teachers sniff condescendingly about the teams from poorer schools, whose pieces are more often music-and-comedy-filled reinterpretations instead of straight scenes. At the same time, we see that, instead of watering down the plays, these versions show a greater understanding of their core stories, as compared to LACHSA’s stiff line recitations. The LACHSA students talk about being Shakespeare purists and seem annoyed that other schools are even competing with them.
Out of left field are the kids from Hesperia, a working class desert town that's become something of a powerhouse in the competition. A pair of brothers who were raised by their aunt and uncle after their father killed their mother emerge as stars, top-ranked in their classes and on the football team. They laugh about being chosen for Othello because the program needs “a couple of big, black guys,” but then reveal themselves to be terrific stage performers as well.
For all the inspiration embodied by the documentary's subjects, it still pushes too hard its message about the importance of the arts in schools. And so we're grateful when Spacey notes that getting a Hollywood career really isn’t the point. Shakespeare High is most moving when it focuses on the young actors' dedication and joy, as they work through their scenes and begin to sort out their lives in the process.