Sundance sports docs tackle complex issues
Amir Bar-Lev arrived in State College, Penn., just after the bombshell dropped. A trusted and long-tenured coach at Penn State University was being investigated as a serial child molester, a story that was splashed across headlines for months and rocked a town of people whose identity was built around coach Joe Paterno and Penn State football.
"A lot of people think they know this story. The news got it pretty wrong and told it in a pretty superficial way," Bar-Lev said. "We spent two years in Happy Valley trying to get that story right and I'm looking forward to starting a new conversation about what I think is a pretty interesting story."
Bar-Lev's "Happy Valley" portraying Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal is one of several sports documentaries premiering at Sundance this year, with topics ranging from a Hollywood actor building one of the most successful independent minor-league baseball teams in history out of a bunch of misfits and castoffs to a Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw a no-hitter in the 1970s while tripping on acid.
Bar-Lev, a Sundance veteran, said the festival screening is an opportunity to hold up a mirror to himself and his audience, using sport as a gateway to deeper societal issues.
Brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, who directed "The Battered Bastards of Baseball," took a story that was close to home and turned it into their directorial and Sundance debut.
The Ways' grandfather Bing Russell, who played Deputy Clem Foster on "Bonanza," established the Portland Mavericks independent baseball team in 1973, turning a ragtag team into a Single A powerhouse.
Chapman said a team photo of the Mavericks players, some of whom were shirtless and drinking beer, inspired an idea to turn a family legend into a full-length documentary.
"It just seemed like a really different kind of baseball team. We always knew that our grandfather owned a professional baseball team, but when I saw that team photo, that was kind of the impetus for wanting to learn more about this team and learn more about what our grandfather did up in Portland," Chapman said.
Portland is hardly a bastion of baseball history, but Russell turned the Mavericks into a community staple and a measuring stick for the hundreds of independent minor-league teams that exist today, Chapman said. Mavericks players would literally walk into the stands to talk with fans or have a drink at the bar after a game with a ticket holder.
"There's a lot of barriers put up between these athletes that are paid millions of dollars to play their sport [today], and the Mavericks were a totally different example of the intimacy and closeness that fans can feel toward their players," Chapman said.
Other Sundance sports documentaries that will be featured include "No No: A Dockumentary" about former Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis, known for his brash attitude as much as his arm, who pitched a no-hitter in June 1970 while on LSD.
Jeffrey Radice, director of "No No" and producer of several short documentaries at previous Sundance festivals, said his biggest challenge was separating legend from legacy for Ellis, who had "Bunyanesque" qualities.
"His legend is wearing hair curlers, taking LSD, riling up the press and being the Muhammad Ali of baseball," Radice said. "But there's another side to him within baseball; he was basically the ace of the Pirates' staff in 1971."
"Hoop Dreams" also will be shown again as a nod to the film's influence in the 1990s as part of Sundance's "From the Collection" archival celebration.
Bar-Lev said he looks forward to showing his film to the open-minded audience he's always found at Sundance, to explore the gray area within the "white hat, black hat" world in which sports and societal issues are often framed.
"It's less about a pedophile and more about what I think are pretty interesting questions that are universal," Bar-Lev said. "I'm hoping that Sundance is another opportunity to take part in an interesting dialogue about a compelling story of our time."
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"The Battered Bastards of Baseball" • Monday, Jan. 20, 5:30 p.m. at The MARC in Park City; Tuesday, Jan. 21, 8:30 p.m. at Library Center Theatre in Park City; Wednesday, Jan. 22, 6:30 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City; Thursday, Jan. 23, 6 p.m. at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City; Saturday, Jan. 25, 10 p.m. at Holiday Village Cinema 4 in Park City.
"Happy Valley" • Sunday, Jan. 19, 2:15 p.m. at The MARC in Park City; Tuesday, Jan. 21, 1 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City; Saturday, Jan. 25, 6:15 p.m. at the Temple Theatre in Park City; Sunday, Jan. 26, 6:30 p.m. at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City.
"No No: A Dockumentary" • Monday, Jan. 20, 9 p.m. at The Temple Theatre in Park City; Wednesday, Jan. 22, 1 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City; Thursday, Jan. 23, at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City; Friday, Jan. 24, 12 noon at the Temple Theatre in Park City; Saturday, Jan. 25, 3 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.
"Hoop Dreams" • Monday, Jan. 20, 1:45 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.