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Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

May 26, 2017
Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation

Growing up in the mid-Atlantic region, lacrosse was pretty much just the sport you played in high school if you were a bit too preppy to go out for the football team. The sort of niche now increasingly taken up by rugby. But long before the well-off suburbs picked it up from the private schools, lacrosse began in the cultural traditions of the Iroquois people, and you’d better believe that the self-consciously multicultural school systems in central Maryland drummed that little fact into our heads.

Of course, that’s about all the point they made about the game’s origins. We got nothing about how it was played or what it meant to those who played it. Or, for that matter, about what it means to those who still play it. Because despite this country’s best efforts, the Iroquois nations still exist, calling themselves Haudenosaunee and even issuing passports under that name. And they field lacrosse teams in international competition. Or at least they try to when the UK doesn’t kick them out of the country for not having fancy enough passports (seriously).

Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation focuses on the Iroquois Nationals box lacrosse team. It’s a variant that started in Canada as something to do with hockey rinks in the summer. In some venues, they set up at one end of an indoor soccer pitch, the length of the boxia field fitting neatly within the width of a full-sized field. There’s not much explanation of any other differences between box and field lacrosse, nor really an explanation of lacrosse itself. Basically it’s something like hockey or soccer, trying to get a ball into a goal, in this case by throwing and catching it with a special stick or “crosse”.

Beyond that, I can’t tell you any more after watching Spirit Game than I could have before it. If you aren’t already familiar with the sport, you’re probably not going to learn much more about it here. To be honest, I had trouble following exactly what was going on when it came to the lacrosse itself. When we saw some on-the-field action, it felt like a highlights reel with little of the narrative quality that makes sports stories inherently dramatic. The Nationals make their way to one championship after another, but without a lilting rhythm of highs and lows, their efforts flatten out into one constant drone.

The lacrosse scenes are, however, cut with talking heads talking about the sport’s history, or contemporary culture in the remaining lands of the Six Nations, or about their ongoing legal battles for respect from the United States and the international community.

The history could well be interesting if it weren’t presented so superficially. We get to see how a crosse was traditionally formed from a single piece of wood, before the modern practice of sticking a plastic head on an aluminum shaft took over. We hear a little about the mythology attached to the game, and how various styles of play are associated with different animals that were important to the Haudenosaunee. I’m certain there’s a lot more to it, but this movie doesn’t seem to have any interest in it beyond a little color to cut up the rest.

The contemporary cultural and legal challenges facing the Iroquois people also could probably make up a documentary of their own, but it’s not really clear what they’re doing in this one. To be sure, these are legitimate grievances worthy of consideration, and I’m hardly calling for them to “stick to lacrosse”. But other than the 2010 passport dust-up, the fields and the courts seem to have little to do with each other. There’s not even a parallelism like that which animates Patricio Guzmán’s documentaries about Chilean astronomy and authoritarian regimes.

And without some tighter connective tissue, Spirit Game feels like a jumble of two other movies, linked only by happening to involve the same First Nations communities. I’d be interested to see each of them fleshed out, but together they can’t make up their minds about what they want to say.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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