DocuWeeks 2012: Stories of Hard Knock Kids Going for the Gold

Three films about youths working to expand their lives have heart of Olympic proportions.

Bárbara and Rayana, two teens living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, try to stay above the fray by training to be circus performers in Without a Net. (Photo: Courtesy of Live Wired Productions)

Aug 7, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

As teams of young men and women from humble origins around the world literally vault, sprint and swim toward superstardom at the London Olympics, a trio of films at this month’s DocuWeeks Festival in Los Angeles and New York has emerged to tell similarly inspiring stories of adolescents using their natural talents to overcome underprivileged backgrounds and pursue a path to a better life.

The month-long DocuWeeks event was created as a showcase for documentaries going for gold themselves by qualifying for Academy Award consideration. The festival has become a launchpad for films involving social issues, with many of the best being selected to go on into wider distribution.

This year’s films include Mai Iskander’s profile of Egyptian journalist Heba Afify, Words of Witness, and Patrick Shen’s La Source, which chronicles a Haitian janitor’s journey back home to provide clean water to the country following the 2010 earthquake.

MORE: Human Rights Watch Has a Film Festival for People Who Care

Here are three DocuWeeks stories of uplift, in both an emotional and societal sense of the term, from America and abroad, that are poised to fill the social justice spotlight.

Once in a Lullaby: The PS 22 Chorus Story

None of the fifth-graders in the PS 22 choir compete in any Olympic sport (yet), but they are seen standing alongside a smiling Michael Phelps and Summer Sanders in Jonathan Kalafer’s film about the YouTube phenoms.

Invited to the 2011 Oscars to perform a closing rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the choir from working-class Staten Island is shown in the film preparing in the month leading up to the ceremony. Under the direction of unorthodox and innovative teacher Gregg Breinberg, the choir’s arrangements of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry songs, propelled by pre-pubescent angelic vocals, become a viral sensation.

Singing through the sore throats that come from constant practice, the kids—particularly a girl named Azaria who was homeless before joining the choir—find their harmonious voice, a lesson they’ll carry with them long after they tire of counting the hits on their online videos.

(N.Y. through Aug. 9; L.A.: Aug. 10-16)

The Anderson Monarchs

Eugene Martin’s portrait of an African-American girls’ soccer squad in South Philadelphia (the only one in America, as it turns out) delves into a subject similar to this year’s Oscar winning doc Undefeated, but takes a somewhat less straightforward approach.

Like Undefeated, race is both an issue that shapes the community around The Anderson Monarchs and a non-issue to those pushing for change within it. As a white coach, Walter Stewart dedicates himself to training a set of 11- and 12-year-olds to juggle and pass, building up their confidence in a place where it’s too easy to fall into the wrong crowd.

However, the impressionistic style Martin employs to tell the story of The Anderson Monarchs emphasizes the complicated reality of the girls’ circumstances: It’s not unusual to hear gunshots coming from the nearby basketball court during practices. The team’s name comes from local-born legendary singer Marian Anderson, and its early taste of success suggests these girls may well be on the path to a bigger life beyond the soccer field.

(N.Y.: Aug. 17-23; L.A.: Aug. 24-30)

Without a Net

The circus in the Rio de Janeiro slum of Praça Onze isn’t quite as polished as its Cirque du Soleil inspiration. Nonetheless, filmmaker Kelly J. Richardson finds great artistry in a place where it might not be expected to flourish. The camera primarily follows two exceptionally flexible teen women and the most graceful, heavy-set 21-year-old the circus-going public has ever seen.

A tent is set up in the middle of an abandoned lot, and the aspiring performers are allowed a reprieve from the drug dealing that goes on outside the tent flaps to train inside of it. There may be no assured future in acrobatics or contortion for the trio, but the socially conscious circus director Junior Perim provides more than just trapeze equipment. He invites these women to step out on a platform where they will build trust with one another and think bigger than their circumstances would allow otherwise.

(N.Y.: Aug. 17-23; L.A.: Aug. 10-16)

What are the best documentaries you’ve ever seen? Post your list in COMMENTS.