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Entertainment

God, Those Girls Can Fight

Is girls’ b-ball about savagery, courage, religion or all three?

By Dorothy Woodend 30 Jun 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend has been the film critic for The Tyee since 2004. Her work has been published in magazines, newspapers and books across Canada and the US, as well as a number of international publications.

Dorothy worked with the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Whistler Film Festival and the National Film Board of Canada. She is a member of the Vancouver Film Critics Circle, and sits on the Board of Directors of the Alliance for Arts and Culture in Vancouver. Dorothy is also the Director of Programming for DOXA Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver.

Reporting Beat: Film.

Dorothy's Connection to BC: Born in Vancouver and raised in the wilds of the Kootenay, Dorothy's favourite spot is her family's farm on Kootenay Lake.

Twitter: @dorothywoodend

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'Sink your teeth into their necks, draw blood.'

The Heart of the Game is a documentary ostensibly about a girl's high school basketball team in Seattle. It is full of dribbles and dunks, an eccentric coach, a rival team, heartbreaks, tough breaks and fast breaks. But it's also about much more. It's about life, man...yeah, life. That fact that sports is like life may have been stolen by advertising agencies to sell shoes, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have any truth left. But perhaps a more apt analogy is that sports is less like life and more like war.

Two sides -- one wins, one loses -- and in between there are bloody battles to the death. But to the victor go the spoils. Or should that be to the victoria. Because this is a film about the games that girls play. No, not the Devil Wears Prada variety, but real honest-to-goodness, kill-or-be-killed b-bitch ball. "Are you dogs or are you wolves?" coach Bill Resler asks his team, and is answered by a blood-curdling howl.

When Resler, a tax professor with three daughters of his own, takes on the coaching job at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, he brings with him some unorthodox methods, including inciting his team to think of themselves as a wolf pack or a pride of lions. If you've ever spent much time playing sports with girlies, you know this does not seem especially beyond the pale. There's a reason that female lions hunt and kill: they're far more ferocious than any male could ever be.

Life imitates art?

The filmmakers followed the Roosevelt Roughriders and their coach over the course of seven years and in the course of that time, a story unfolded like it was scripted by God; although with this one, it appears that God has been taking screenwriting courses from story guru Robert McKee. If life imitates art, art appears to be imitating sport. There is enough grace and ability on display to put many an artiste to shame. The Heart of the Game is, to borrow a line from critic Robin Wood, who in turn borrowed it from F.R. Leavis, a film that is "intelligent about life." This is not to say the film isn't piled high with well-worn sports clichés, but somehow that doesn't matter; it still gets you right in your war-torn heart

The documentary was made in part with a small video camera, and its roughness suits the ebb and flow of the game. Often, director Ward Serill shoots only the girls' feet, backgrounded by the squeaking of their shoes on the basketball court. The team comes together and falls apart. Their archrivals, the Bulldogs, go from being "cellar dwellers" to "the team to beat" at state finals, thanks in part to another equally ferocious coach named Joyce Walker. Often it falls on the shoulders of one girl to unite a brawl of wild beasts into a fighting force. In the case of the Roughriders, it is initially a tough-talking girl named Devon, whose brave words hide a secret shame. The next year, the mantle falls to Darnellia Russell, a young woman who has been playing basketball since before she could do much of anything else. Darnellia is like a small sun; the sheer heat of her skill radiating out is both attractive and potentially destructive.

The subtext of the film, although somewhat indirectly stated, is about the pressures girls face in the current cultural climate of sex, discrimination and economic inequality. The political nature of sport is never far away, not only in terms of gender, but more critically as an economic levelling. It is still a means for poor kids to get into expensive colleges. On a global scale, the playing field levels the inequities between first and third world nations. Only in the World Cup can Ghana play the U.S. and kick ass. It's the ultimate underdog story -- an impoverished kid from the ghetto grows up to be world-beater. How can you top that? You can't, so surrender. In the case of Darnellia Russell, it gets even more complicated, as the kid has a kid and keeps on playing.

Baby b-ball

When Darniella is potentially disqualified from the team after dropping out of school to have a baby, callers to a talk radio sports station in Seattle sum up the current harshness. One by one, they reel off the prejudices that girls, by the very virtue of their sex, are faced with. Some are social stigmas not seen since the 1950s, when sexual abstinence was the only socially acceptable moral choice. Girls who chose anything other than that had to bear the consequences of their actions. Race, too, is a central issue that comes up obliquely. Darniella's mother sends her to Roosevelt because it is primarily a white school and thus a better avenue to future success, a college education, more money and ultimately a better life.

How much and how little has changed. In one section of the film, a 95-year-old veteran of girls' basketball visits the team and recounts the early days when the rules decreed that girls couldn't hold the ball for more than 30 seconds, make more than three consecutive dribbles or leave their own court. Such admonitions were meant to prevent girls from over-exercizing. Huh? So, yes, things are a little different.

But maybe not different enough quite yet. The issue of dualism, the mind-body split, is particularly profound for women and girls, who are taught from birth almost to fear and loathe their unruly bodies -- too big, too little, too spotty, too hairy, too whatever. In the midst of this there is something exhilarating in watching athletes who have no interest in looking good, only in winning, stinking and dripping with sweat, red-faced. "Rip their throats out, draw blood, kill!" they scream before each game -- all those things that girls think, but never usually say.

Guilty pleasures

Some of the on-the court moments are particularly striking, such as the first time the Roughriders go to the state finals, and lose by one point. The film cuts from the final shot, the ball suspended in midair to the Roughrider dressing room, in which the team sits in various postures of despair, weeping. Another young girl enters the dressing room, and yells, "FUCK!" throwing her towel. Jocks are the same it seems, no matter what gender they might be. If even watching a game on screen is enough to stop your heart, imagine what it must feel like to be there. Glory Hallelujah!

Sports documentaries are a particularly guilty pleasure, not unlike sports itself. It's hard not to feel your heart soar when the rookie on the team, in the dying seconds of the big game, gets the ball and sinks a shot. Such splendid moments can have a strange effect on people. After seeing the film, my brother decided to rededicate himself to golf, and went out to play at 9 p.m. Perhaps he's still out there? Which is why the 95-year-old little white-haired lady and former-coach says, "Never give up." Is this Nike's next slogan? Or the real heart of the game? One will far outlast the other.

Author Michael Gruber writes, "In general, humans tend to be uncomfortable locked in the prison of the self. Our own identification with nation and sports teams is probably a relic of that, and on a higher level, there's religion."

If the drama that sweeps through The Heart of the Game is any indication, God must have a thing for girls' basketball.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every Friday.

Related stories: Dorothy Woodend complains about the confession obsession in documentary films, Steve Burgess growls about Grizzly Man, and Elaine Corden writes about good reality TV.  [Tyee]

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