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Tribeca Documentaries Explore Gender Issues in Sport

Up until recently, what it meant to be a professional female athlete in a world dominated by men wasn’t an issue that garnered high volumes of public interest, let alone national headlines. But that all changed in October 2017 when stories from the New York Times and the New Yorker detailing sexual allegations and improper workplace behavior against Harvey Weinstein ignited the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which quickly spread beyond the entertainment world. Less than two years later, four documentary films that explore the role of gender and sexuality in male dominated sports are heading to the Tribeca Film Festival. Those docus are: Erin Lee Carr’s “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” Yu Gu’s “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem,” Alex Holmes’ “Maiden” and Michael Barnett’s “Changing the Game.”

“At the Heart of Gold” explores the 2017 USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal and the people, as well as the institutions, that enabled and covered up team doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of hundreds of young women for decades. The film’s subject matter — a departure for Carr, who has spent the past few years making technology-driven crime docs — intrigued the helmer. “Sports are great for documentaries because they have this inherent structure with stakes that are built in,” explains Carr. “So matching a scandal with the beautiful, lyrical sensibility of a sport like gymnastics made for the perfect subject to explore in a deep-dive investigative film.”

Carr uses archival footage, first-person interviews with key players and excerpts from the victim impact statements delivered by more than 150 women during Nassar’s trial to examine the labor of young women for the benefit of powerful adults and a corrupt institution. HBO acquired “At the Heart of Gold” in July. Carr says she isn’t sure if the film would have appealed to audiences, fest programmers and distributors prior to the #MeToo Movement.

“I’d like to think that had this been before #MeToo I could have gone to HBO and been like, ‘There’s something really bad happening in the sport of gymnastics,’ and they would have accepted it,” says Carr. “But in terms of audiences, I think they care so much about these subjects right now because of the incredible increased awareness that things like this are happening. So before people might have said, ‘Oh. It’s just a gymnastics thing.’ But now we know it’s happening across many platforms and gymnastics is the tip of the iceberg. That genuine awareness leads to an appetite to see content that really delivers on what happened, what went wrong and what is the way forward.”

Gu’s “A Woman’s Work” also focuses on a female-driven sport in an arena where men largely pull the strings. In this case, cheerleading and the National Football League.

Gu began filming in 2014 when she met a woman named Lacy, who had filed a class-action lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders, fighting to be paid a minimum wage for her work as a cheerleader for the team. Her lawsuit inspired four other women to speak out, including Maria, who sued the Buffalo Bills and the NFL because she received zero payment for her work as a cheerleader on the Buffalo Jills. (On a yearly basis, the Buffalo Bills bring in a reported revenue in excess of $200 million.) Lacy’s lawsuit has been settled, but Maria’s is still ongoing.

Gu admits that while the fight for wage and gender equality in the workplace certainly isn’t a new topic, it took until 2017 to get the money she needed to finish the film.

“When we were applying for funding I used the word patriarchy in our treatment,” Gu remembers. “The feedback was,  ‘that word is too strong,’ and, ‘that’s not what you actually mean to say, so change it.’ That reaction was a little bit shocking to me because I felt like people weren’t necessarily ready to see how this film relates to the bigger picture of the women’s movement or the fight for women’s rights.”

That reaction, Gu says, was due to some documentary funders’ limited definitions of feminism, which did not include cheerleaders.

“The fact that the women in my film chose to wear very little clothing and dance for men on the football field was judged by funders as something that was harmful to the women’s movement,” Gu says. “Therefore this story and these cheerleaders’ fight were not really worthwhile to them. But after the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements got off the ground, people we had approached before were like, ‘Wow! I see how this is part of the power balance within the workplace that leads to all of these different harmful realities for women.’” While Gu secured development funding from PBS’ ITVS in 2014 for “A Woman’s Work,” it took until the end of 2017 for ITVS to give the project full production funding.

“I think it was like, OK. This is the time to finish this film and this is the time to bring it out to audiences,” says Gu.

Like “A Woman’s Work,” Sony Pictures Classics’ “Maiden” is a timely true story about women breaking down barriers. In this case, the focus is on 24-year-old Tracy Edwards, who became the skipper of the first ever all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989.

Little to nothing was expected of Edwards and her team. But when the female crew made a respectable showing during the nine-month race, it turned them into heroes. Holmes uses archival footage shot on-board the ship as well as present-day interviews to tell the story of a group of women who were told no because of their gender, only to prove everyone wrong.

Holmes, who began filming four years ago, says, as with most docs, it was a struggle to secure financing. A struggle for which he is now thankful.

“This story obviously feeds into a much wider discussion that is currently being had,” says Holmes. “We are very fortunate that it feeds into that discussion. If we had raised the money simply and made the film much more quickly, then we wouldn’t have had that benefit. But no matter what, it’s a vital story with incredible characters.” In the film Holmes doesn’t touch on present day gender parity issues that still exist within the sailing community, but the helmer says he believes things have changed.

“What Tracy says is that back in 1989, women and women alone were having the conversation about creating a level playing field,” Holmes says. “The difference now is that that conversation involves many more people. It’s being had with sons, daughters, husbands and fathers. Everybody is involved with the conversation, and that gives me hope that perhaps this time around there will be a more lasting change.”

Barnett is also hoping for change. His doc “Changing the Game” focuses on three transgender high school athletes living in different parts of the country who each challenge the boundaries and perceptions of fairness and discrimination in their respective sports that include wrestling, track and skiing.

“Change happens when people tell their stories,” Barnett says. “The three incredible young people sharing themselves so openly and so vulnerably in my film can change culture in ways that are sometimes hard to measure, but ultimately their stories and others can lead to policy change.”

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