The opening weekend of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival means one thing to most sports fans — Super Bowl Sunday! — but those who are put off by the commercialism of the football spectacle might find some rewarding experiences in the festival itself.
Anyone for tennis? There is a candid portrait of the controversial coach Nick Bollettieri. Other documentary films deal with a high school basketball team trying to stay relevant in the Hamptons, a summer playground of the wealthy; an Israeli fencing coach driven by Olympic dreams; and a troupe of marathon runners plucked out of L.A.’s Skid Row.
Love Means Zero: “Memories are made of this,” croons Dean Martin in his easygoing manner as this film unfolds on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but there is nothing laid-back about its subject. Nick Bollettieri, 86, sits erect in a chair, his leathery face deeply bronzed, his thinning gray hair combed forward, with raspy defiance in his voice, as he is interviewed by filmmaker Jason Kohn. The founder of the Bollettieri Tennis Academy makes no apologies for the way he treated some of the biggest stars in the sport while using their fame to sell his youth camps to the paying masses.
Foremost among his success stories was Andre Agassi, with whom he had a difficult 10-year relationship. (Agassi is not interviewed in the film; in his autobiography,
Open, he describes the academy as “Lord of the Flies with forehands.”) Bollettieri favored Agassi over a hardworking Jim Courier, who does appear on camera. “There was fuel, anger, rage, because of what Nick was doing,” Courier says. On the women’s side, Kathleen Horvath felt betrayed when Bollettieri dropped her in favor of Carling Bassett. He justifies his choices by saying, “I want to be a winner and with winners.”
There is drama in the clips of Grand Slam tennis matches between Courier and Agassi and, later, between Agassi and Boris Becker. A bit of nostalgia: You can hear the familiar voice of the late sportscaster Dick Enberg.
Bollettieri coached Becker after severing his ties with Agassi. Why did he do it? “I don’t know; that’s Nick,” he says, referring to himself in the third person. At one point, he mentions that he had eight wives and could not recall their names. “I don’t think about being loved,” he says, providing inspiration for the title of this documentary.
Killer Bees: Bridgehampton High sits in a low-income enclave of the Hamptons. Its enrollment includes the descendants of black migrant laborers who came north to work on the farms. The school’s pride is the Killer Bees, the boys’ basketball team that has won nine New York state championships. This film documents the Bees’ 2015-16 season at a time the area is losing its rural character. There is a burgeoning demand for expensive second homes that are occupied only in the summer, when polo and yachting are the sports of choice.
One of the schoolboys observes, “Where they’re building, there used to be woods and trails.” The old school itself appears to be threatened by development. Much of its vitality lies in the hands of the Killer Bees. They are coached by a former star player, Carl Johnson. His assistant is Joe Zucker, an artist of some repute, who envisions Bridgeport basketball as a long-running river. “You jump in and become part of the flow,” he says.
There is adversity off the court — one of the players faces eviction from his home — and the season does not flow smoothly. There is finger-pointing after a loss to rival Southampton. But the Bees rebuild their camaraderie and make it to the playoffs. As in a lot of sports movies, it comes down to a big game, the winner advancing to the state finals. The soundtrack echoes the frenetic action in the final quarter, as the jazz trumpet of Don Ellis punctuates a rapid rhythm with the beat structure of the tune’s title: “33 222 1 222.” But then the music slows and fades, and tears are flowing at the end of the game.
Fence Your Best: Haim Hatuel is another ego-driven coach, though not as mercenary as Nick Bollettieri. He truly loves the sport of fencing and has to beg for support from the Israeli Ministry of Sport and Culture. At 68, he is set in his ways, and his son, Maor, a national champion, bristles against his control: “Don’t just give me, ‘I’m your dad, and that’s it.’”
More respectful is Hatuel’s daughter, Delila. She competed but did not medal in the Beijing Olympics and is making a comeback in the months before the Rio Games.
Maor is eliminated in the last qualification tournament. Delila wins a key bout and celebrates joyfully. But there are complications. Will the family be foiled again?
To the untrained eye, the action of fencing is a blur, and the hour-long film does not try to explain the sport. It’s all about relationships.
Skid Row Marathon: In his day job, Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell imposes long jail terms for brutal crimes. In his predawn routine, the former prosecutor runs through the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles and beckons the sort of people who might end up in his courtroom to follow him on a road to hope, recovery, and lasting friendship.
Mitchell formed the Midnight Mission Running Team, a band of misfits in pursuit of fitness. “We are all hopeless, diehard, alcoholic drug-addicts,” says Rebecca Hayes. By the end of the film, she has taken a job in her hometown of Seattle as a labor and delivery nurse.
Other featured runners are David Askew, an aspiring artist who gives a tour of the rat-infested cave in the L.A. Riverbed that he called home; Ben Shirley, a washed-out rocker who takes smoke breaks during his training runs and discovers a talent in musical composition; and Rafael Cabrera, a convicted murderer who served almost 29 years in prison. His repentant ways win the support of the compassionate Mitchell, whose wife describes him as having “the heart of a priest.”
None of them runs with natural fluidity. Mitchell himself is slightly hunched and stiff around the shoulders, and we learn that the vertebrae in his neck and upper back are fused. But their goal of running a marathon is a matter of commitment, not talent. Mitchell raises the funds to send a small team to run a 26-miler in Ghana. A year later, they are 25 strong when they all finish an international marathon in Rome. “It gives them dignity,” Mitchell says of the life-affirming adventure.
Left behind are 57,000 others in the streets and shelters of L.A., but this beautiful film shows how one good man does his part to confront the problem.