Dreams do come true when talented youngsters cross paths with mentors. For track and field U.S. prodigies, Sheppard sisters Tai, Rainn and Brooke, their encounter with coach Jean Bell, their fairy godmother, was pivotal in their sports and personal achievements.
The Netflix Original documentary “Sisters on Track” is unspooling this week in the Special Premiere strand of Scandinavian’s leading documentary festival CPH:DOX (April 21-May 12), before heading off to Tribeca’s Viewpoint slot in June.
Brooklyn-based award-winning Corinne van der Borch (“Girls With Black Balloons”) is directing with Norway’s Tone Grøttjord-Glenne (“Brothers”).
The pic charts the inspiring coming-of-age story of the three young Brooklyn-born Sheppard sisters’ race to a brighter future, away from their homelessness past with their mother Tonia Hardy. We follow the three young athletes, Tai (12), Rainn (11) and Brooke (10), from the 2016 media frenzy that followed their plebiscite as “Sports Illustrated Kids of the Year,” to their final years of Junior High in 2019.
Track and field coach and lawyer by profession, Jean Bell is their guide, on and off the track. She inspires them to beat the odds, dream big and aim for higher education. Through van der Borch and Grøttjord-Glenne’s intimate lens and the sisters’ own playful home videos, we witness the three girls, as they bloom into self-confident young women, empowered by their whole community of women.
The first Netflix Original documentary from Norway is produced Grøttjord-Glenne and Anita Rehoff Larsen for their outfit Sant & Usant, behind the Oscar short-listed “Gunda,” and Grøttjord-Glenne’s other doc “All That I Am,” also bowing at CPH:DOX.
Oscar-nominated Sam Pollard (“4 Little Girls,” “MLK/FBI”) serves as executive producer.
Variety spoke exclusively with Van der Borch and Grøttjord-Glenne on the eve of CPH:DOX.
How did you first hear about the Sheppard sisters, and then agree to collaborate on the film?
Corinne van der Borch: My children go to a local public school in Brooklyn, New York, and one of my friends attended a fund-raising party organized for Tonia Hardy, who at the time was living in a shelter with her three daughters. My friend said you have to meet these girls. Their story is amazing. I did, and then Tonia said I should meet coach Jean [Bell] as well.
I first called [filmmaker] Sam Pollard, who has been my mentor since he awarded me the Grand Jury Prize at DOCNYC for my first feature length film “Girl With Black Balloons.” Then I called Tone. We’ve been friends for 20 years and share the same taste for documentaries. We had wanted to collaborate for many years and felt this was the right project.
Tone tell me your side of the story…
Tone Grøttjord-Glenne: Corinne started filming early fall 2016. When she told me the story of three homeless girls, living with their mum, picked up by a coach, invited to train at a track club, and after just one year got qualified for the Junior Olympic Games, I immediately booked a plane ticket to come.
Tone you’ve taken part in the Nordic docu series in six-parts “Sport Kids.” That experience must have been very useful for this film…
TGG: In the two films that we produced at Sant & Usant, “Varicella” [by Victor Kossakovsky] and “Maiko-Dancing Child” [by Åse Svenheim Drivenes], the rules we introduced while casting were that we needed a child who was able to achieve at a high level and had a strong relationship with someone else, to lift the story to a universal level. The backdrop was sports, but the heart of the story was the human journey. That translated into this film too. The sports element is present, but it’s not a sports doc as such. The coming-of-age story is the most important.
Do you feel it was an asset to have an outsider’s POV, as European white filmmakers approaching the Sheppard sisters, coach Jean and their African American community?
CVDB: Coach Jean loves to travel and she used to take the older girls every year on their spring break on a journey, to give them a broader perspective of life. I guess she was attracted by the idea of having us outsiders film their world.
TGG: In every film, you have to ask yourself: am I the right person to tell the story?
Here, being white female filmmakers in a Black community was something to reflect upon. Also, the film tells a very feminist story. We decided to bring in Shola Lynch, who is a runner herself, and won the Colgate Women Games. She is from the same community and a filmmaker as well. Then perhaps the fact that I’m from Norway, coming from a welfare state, led to the film being focused on the pressure that the girls had to go through in order to have a chance in life.
How did your relationship with the girls and their mother evolve over time?
CVDB: We filmed for four years and decided to condense the narrative in a three-year timeline. We knew we would film very young girls, at a vulnerable and formative time of their lives. The girls were very inquisitive, about our job, our lives. Tonia eventually found a job and things settled down for her.
TGG: For any participant in documentaries, it’s hard to understand what it means for us to stay by their side for a long stretch of time. What was special for us is that we came into their lives before the media storm hit them. That created a great foundation for trust. And while the media focused on their sports achievement, we wanted to tell a different story. That also created a special and deeper bond between us.
Can you explain your filming technique and combination of traditional observational documentary filmmaking with the girls’ own mobile footage?
CVDB: Because of their inquisitiveness, zest for life, in 2017 we gave the girls a small DV camera for Christmas. They had also received iPhones from Whoopi Goldberg! They were immediately inspired to film things we couldn’t think of, in a very playful way, including popping off their zits! At one point, we even gave them our equipment to film, which added a new “meta” layer to the narrative.
We had an amazing DoP – Derek Howard [“Aquarella,” “The Hottest August”] who had moved from Berlin to NYC. He was perfect for the film.
Would you agree that the film is as much about coach Jean Bell who is altogether their mentor, second mother and guardian angel?
CVDB: Jean had a powerful track and field coach herself, coach Freddy [Fred Thompson], who became a lawyer like her and was her guardian angel. Having had that experience, she has naturally instilled that way of thinking in all the girls that she’s coached for 36 years with her sister at the Jeuness Track Club. She believes in passing the baton of self-empowerment through track and field, from generation to generation. It is so inspirational to see that it actually works.
TGG: As coach Jean says: “You can be whoever you want and go as far as you want.” It’s a great message. She also reminded us grown-ups that we can be someone for someone else.
Music plays a major role in driving the narrative. Did the Sheppard sisters suggest some of the songs?
CVDB: Subconsciously they probably did! From the get go, we were inspired by a band from New Orleans, Tank and the Bangas, because of their sound, quirkiness, use of spoken words and poetry. We got in touch with an amazing composer/producer from L.A., Mark Batson [multiple Grammy-awards winner], who has worked with top artists including Beyoncé…and Tank and the Bangas! We sat down to discuss the soundscape, to use the sound as the breath, pacing for the film. As he grew up in Brooklyn himself, he agreed to help us.
TBB: We were dreaming of having an original score for the film – and Mark [Batson] connected us with Tank and the Bangas. They wrote a song called “The Dream,” that is absolutely perfect for the story.
What does it mean for you to have Netflix on board and what type of impact campaign will you put together to get the film out to as many people as possible – especially kids from an underprivileged background?
TGG: Netflix has an amazing reach across 190 countries so we feel lucky to collaborate with them. Having the film widely available will also help the impact campaign.
CVDB: On the impact campaign, we work with Colgate Women’s Games. They were touched by the film and wanted to start a partnership to shine a light on their games, founded 45 years ago by Fred Thompson. It is an organic collaboration.
Have the girls and their mother Tania seen the film?
CVDB: Yes they have. They were laughing, crying…They loved it so we got their stamp of approval, and Tania believes the film will trend on Netflix!