Overview: Out of nowhere comes Peter Berg with yet another round of sports documentaries under the STATE OF PLAY banner. What follows is a review of the three installments that debuted on 12.13, 12.14 and 12.15.
“Inherent Violence” – Combative sport has transcended time and remains popular today. Is violence an inherent part of sports, or is it an inherent part of human beings? This film explores combat sports through two father-son relationships, a 33-year-old American professional MMA fighter who is combat training his ten-year-old son, and a 47-year-old retired player of Calcio Storico in Florence, Italy, who has groomed his son to compete in this form of soccer (dating back to the 16th century), in which head-butting, punching, elbowing and choking are allowed.
“Fighting Chance” – Having spent his entire adult life as a professional boxer, 35-year-old Raymundo “Sugar Ray” Beltran (31-7-1, 19 KOs), a Mexican immigrant and father of three, is striving to win his first world title as his career wanes. Known as a formidable opponent and a sparring partner of worldwide superstar Manny Pacquiao, he has spent most of his career on the fringe of the sport, and now strives to break free of his underdog status. Beltran’s pursuit of a championship brings into sharp focus the question of what it takes to win and asks if talent and skill alone make an athlete successful in boxing, or do circumstance, context and politics also play a significant role?
“Game of Borders” – In a time of conflict and unrest, is the reward of organized sport worth the risk? Amid the conflict and chaos of the Middle East, the Palestine national football team keeps playing. Should they take the field when the stakes off the field are as high as life and death? Or do these athletes provide an essential and peaceful glimmer of light to their community?
Expectations: I like the approach this documentary series takes. I’m not sure how Peter Berg and company put these pieces together but I like that they posit a series of questions and/or set a hypothesis and test its validity via the story they tell and the interview they follow up with. I guess it makes it all easier for the reviewer in the long run because instead of searching for the message in the film they come right out and tell you what they hope to learn from the piece. For example, the quest for understanding if violent nature is crucial in sports. Are we confusing competitive drive with violent tendencies? Three unique stories three sets of questions to be answered. What do we come up with? We find out in STATE OF PLAY.
Gut Reaction: First of all, let’s get out of the way that this season of STATE OF PLAY is constructed differently from the previous one. Peter Berg is not in-studio to set up the piece or interviewing anyone at the film’s conclusion. The questions we would ask as to keep in mind, however, are still prevalent and we seek those answers.
“Inherent Violence” – The person examining the issues in this first film is Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist. He alerts us to the history of sports. The ancient gladiator contests were to find out who was fit for war and to please the crowds. Modern day gladiators then become the focus with 10-year old Cross getting into MMA fighting like his father and Giovanni following his father’s path into the world’s most brutal sport. The camera is right there.
Both fighter’s stories are intercut and varied but start and end the same way as both grew up watching their fathers fight are both end up defeated in their respective contests. For youngster Cross, he finally gets to fight in what appears as a well-organized and structured event for youth in MMA bouts. It is a culture he has grown up in though he does not look like he was prepared for his bout. The question, of course, arises if we should be placing children intentionally into violent situations, even if it is just a sport. In Giovanni’s position, we have a sport with no regulations in place that has been a tradition for centuries. Even though the match, from which we see highlights of, is full of pomp and circumstance it is violence in the arena. It is a modern day gladiatorial game with a soccer ball in play. It is all for honor and sport.
Are we confusing “competitive drive” with “aggression” and/or “violence?” As Gervais points out “violence” is an act with the intent to hurt and in Calcio Storico that was certainly the agenda. In MMA, at least in Cross’s age range it is viewed as a legit sport just like boxing.
It certainly gives one pause to think about sports and violence, but there are two other films to address here.
“Fighting Chance” – This film gives the viewer the career of pugilist Ray Beltran who is still hanging on for a Belt after forty-some bouts. It does not only offer us a biography of his quest but also raises the questions of how far and how hard do you go at it before you say enough is enough. He is at the high age for the sport at 35. What is it going to take to win? He has clocked the hours and the experience, but, as this film shows, it has eluded him in many ways, most of them out of his control. One crucial bout ended in a Draw while another excitedly played out here, ended in not making weight and then not passing a drug test. This was a great story to tell and it isn’t over yet.
Beltran, because of his family, is sticking with it. He still feels he has a fighting chance and as the film states resumed his place in the circuit, after his drug suspension. He won his bout in May 2016.
“Game Of Borders” – Even in a war-torn part of the world they still want to play sports. The Palestine football team finds the time, the means, and the necessity to practice and play their sport. The big question here is should they? Are sports that important when life and limb are in danger? Why risk it? I think this team gives us a great answer.
But first, we are reminded that they are lucky to have a team at all. For those not clear of the situation in that region former U. N. Ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer reminds us that it is extraordinary for FIFA to grant a team because Palestine is a displaced band of people and not viewed as an organized country in the political arena.
With that obstacle past them they only face more and yet the need for a team looms large. There are always issues with bombed facilities, checkpoints, and scrutiny of visa and passports. Just like U. S. policy, you can leave the country but your papers better be in order to get back in. Of course, all those stresses are played out in this film making you wonder why the Palestinian Football Team is that important.
The question raised is easily answered. It is very important. Just like anywhere else sports is played the sense of pride by players and fans is important. This team’s existence and continued play gives these people a sense of nationality. All of the stresses, though buckling at times, in the end are worth it. As we see a World Cup qualifying round eventually plays on the team’s home turf and the unity, peace, pride and sense of accomplishment is high. Regardless of what one’s political views are sports has a place in any community and this film affirms that.
In Conclusion: Truth be told it is hard to single out a favorite here. Each installment of STATE OF PLAY this round had a great story. I liked “Inherent Violence” as the strongest piece to bring out debate. It is similar to the “Trophy Kids” installment from last time because it brings children into the equation. The question is still not answered, though. Are certain sports teaching our kids to express aggressive behavior? Is that a good thing? You decide.
As for ‘Fighting Chance” I just liked Beltran’s story to the point of seeing just how his career in boxing ends up. Does he still have a chance? As a story of emotional impact, it has got to be “Game of Borders.” Despite the odds, this team plays on. I never paid much attention but from now on whenever I see FIFA rankings I know one team whose standings I’ll look for. You?
Even though Peter Berg’s round-table discussions were not included here it didn’t lessen the discussion each story offered. I always like that in a documentary. STATE OF PLAY hit it out of the park!
About The Author
Editor at Large of HBOWatch.com and the internet's foremost HBO expert.