Friday, May 20, 2005

Jax Film Fest: Day One

And the Third annual Jacksonville Film Festival...begins!

To kick off the festivities, there were two films screened on Thursday night: Phil the Alien and Murderball. The former is a quirky comedy and has been chosen as the official festival opener, being accompanied by a ritzy premiere reception. The later is a documentary that won the Audience award at Sundance earlier this year. Being the introverted sumbitch that I am, I just stuck with the later flick.

Murderball (Official Distributor Site) is in some ways a very familiar story of a group of handicapped people overcoming their disabilities while engaging in a popular sport. But instead of being a warm, fuzzy schoolday-afternoon-special piece, we have some lean and mean guys who engage in a variation of perhaps the least-genteel sport on the planet: Rugby.

After starting with a quiet moment with featured player Mark Zupan, and the struggles he has with such a simple task as changing a pair of pants, we're launched into a speed metal montage of Quad Rugby (nicknamed by some as Murderball) footage. During this, we're given a quick illustration on how the various levels of quadriplegic injury factor into game play as well as the game rules themselves. We're also introduced to all the players, who all seem to be fierce competitors and none, none of them what anyone would call "helpless". The beginning of the documentary makes clear that there is no pity here, only the excitement of living.

Near the end of this montage, we're introduced to Joe Soares, who the audience learned during the Q&A after the screening was really the guy who convinced the director that there was enough material in this sport for a documentary. Joe was a star player for a long time with Team USA, but was eventually cut a number of years ago for being too old. This angered him so much that he decided to accept a coaching job for Team Canada, a decision that led to his defeating Team USA for the first times ever at the World Quad Rugby championship. And thus, our rivalry is created and extra motivation is given to Team USA.

We spend a decent amount of time with Joe, who looks a lot like Michael Rooker's slightly uglier brother and can be a real ass if he wants or needs to be. But our real focus is Mark, who becomes the unofficial (then official) spokesman of Team USA. We learn about the accident that caused his injury (thrown from a truck into a canal) and the rift caused with his best friend after the accident (his friend was driving drunk). But, even in terms of the accident, he seems actually thankful for it; a point he reiterated during that Q&A session. It's allowed him to find this new life, new friends and a role in helping new quadriplegic with their disabilities.

When it comes to these sorts of spinal injuries, you don't see a lot of data entry clerks who get injured. Though it's true that car accidents cause a great deal of these injuries, quite a few are also caused by playing high speed sports. In this light, the people who are injured have an even more severe adjustment to make as their former daily life is even farther removed from what they have to look forward to.

Mark Zupan was a rough and tumble football player in high school, and the particular activity of Quad Rugby gives him a feeling of freedom, athleticism and energy that would be lacking in other sports. Dearly on, we meet Keith Cavill, a young man who recently became a quadriplegic after sustaining an injury while riding his motocross bike; a passion of his since he was very young. It's heartbreaking to see him have his friends drag the bike out of the garage after the accident, and he realizes that there's extremely little chance he'll ever gain the excitement of riding again.

That makes it all the more touching when Zupan visits a group of Quads, including Keith, in order to introduce them to Quad Rugby. Keith's face lights up when he sees the chairs and the speed and the action. This isn't motocross, he realizes, but it could give him the same adrenaline he once thought was lost. Keith doesn't get as much attention as Mark or Joe, but he becomes the heart of the film.

This is a great documentary, folks, and a great way to start the festival.

Nine out of Ten

(This can also be viewed at Blogcritics)

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