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Five Sports Documentaries That Shaped An Irish Filmmaker

By Mark Farrelly
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Ross Whitaker is an Irish filmmaker, whose new documentary Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story is currently touring Ireland and receiving amazing reviews. Previously, Whitaker has been best know for films such as Saviours and When Ali Came to Ireland. He has kindly taken the to share with us five sports documentaries that have had the biggest influence on him.


Sport can be considered a macho endeavour, it’s a competitive arena and athletes push themselves and their opponents to the limits of their physical capabilities. It’s a place for focus, drive and clinical accuracy and emotion must be eliminated completely or harnessed to improve performance.

But sports fans are a different breed to whose who they watch. Generally speaking, following your favourite team or player is an emotional pursuit and I, for one, get addicted to that rollercoaster.

It’s fans that consume sports documentaries and fans that make them and the recent popularity of films like Senna and the ESPN 30 for 30 series shows that there are plenty of topics to cover and plenty of people to watch them.

For any Irish documentary maker, with a gra for sport, there are a number of films that will have shaped what they do and how they make their films. And in recent discussion with other filmmakers, here are a few that stood out.

Hoop Dreams


20 years on, it just won’t go away. It’s amazing to think that people are still talking about a film made on a shoe-string and shot on video but it really was just that good. I heard a funny story recently that the makers pretended to Sundance that it was shot on film to ease the path of the film into the festival. From there it took off, with legendary film critics Siskel and Ebert singing it’s praises for months on end. What stood out about this film was the incredible access and the sensitivity with which the filmmakers let the story unfold. When you’re filming for years, real change happens and taking that time can lead to really rewarding stories. Sometimes I call that process ‘undirecting’ – that is, don’t direct the action, just let it happen.


When we were kings


This blew us all away, didn’t it?! For many of the word ‘documentary’ meant nature films and social issue commentaries until we saw this film. Sure, it was a film with some politics in it but the sugar that came with that medicine was so very sweet. It’s a story about a comeback hero overcoming an unbeatable incumbent against all of the odds and perhaps the moment that made Muhammad Ali an enduring legend. Suddenly documentaries could be entertaining and I think the best ones always try to be that. It’s a mantra: “Be Entertaining.” In making Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story it is something we were very conscious of and we were always careful to bring some humour to the table despite the difficulties our central character was enduring. The truth is that every life has light and shade, humour and despair and it’s good if a film can reflect that.

One day in September


Unlike When We Were Kings, this film had politics more centrally at its core. But what really stood out for me is the incredible empathy of this film and the way that it makes you feel. The film is incredible humane and engaging and all the more powerful for it. It doesn’t shy away from emotion. There’s a fine line sometimes in filmmaking. There’s nothing worse than the camera that holds too long on the crying participant. But, at the same time, real genuine emotion is something that enables the audience to put themselves in the shoes of the subject. Sometimes that when documentary is at it’s best. Making Unbreakable, the difficulty was trying to balance that out. There were so many tough times and we needed to show them but it was also important to show the lighter side of Mark and Simone.


A year til Sunday


The influence of this Pat Comer documentary about the triumphant Galway football team of 1998 remains to this day. I’ve heard so many Irish directors mention it as a seminal film and the combination of amazing access and dramatic storytelling, not to mention brilliant action, makes it stand out from the crowd. Still. And the thing about it was that it was also Irish and it opened my eyes (and many others’ eyes I know) to the idea that there were amazing stories on our doorsteps.



One word: intensity. It might sound like a strange choice but the sheer intensity of this film, which is essentially a series of close up interviews with Tyson with break out moments from his career, was a real eye-opener. If a character is interesting enough then an audience will watch him or her all day. It’s a lesson in keeping things simple and not overplaying your hand. I look forward to the day when someone does the Irish version: 'Keane.'


Ross Whitaker's Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story is currently showing in the Light House Cinema in Smithfield, Dublin and touring Ireland.


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