Tag Archives: sports film

The Fencer (Miekkailija, Finland-Estonia-Germany 2014)

Märt Avandi as Endel Nelis, the fencer with a secret

Märt Avandi as Endel Nelis, the fencer with a secret

The Fencer is a beautifully-produced film that is likely to please audiences with its central story. It works as what might be called a ‘national popular’ film which tells a story that resonates with local audiences who want to identify with the film’s heroes and with the overall message which supports an idea of national identity.

Such films are perhaps most noticeable when they come from small countries with limited resources for film production. In this context a local story stands out and can even out-perform Hollywood films because of its local cultural importance.

Finland and Estonia

This film is essentially a Finnish creation – a Finnish writer, Anna Heinämaa, and director Klaus Härö, with a mixed crew of Finns, Estonians and Germans. The story itself and the actors are Estonian – the lead actor Märt Avandi is a well-known local actor, singer and television host.

The film was ironically the Finnish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards and competed with the Estonian film 1944, which told another, related ‘national story’. Why are these film cultures so closely linked?

Finnish and Estonian are the two main languages in the Uralic language group, distantly related to Hungarian but not to any major Indo-European languages. The two countries are separated by the Gulf of Finland and the Russian territory of the Karelian isthmus – ceded by Finland after the 1939-40 ‘Winter War’. Finns and Estonians are united by their historical battles with Russia as well as their shared language culture.

Estonia and Russia

Estonia has a history of occupation from the 17th century onwards, first under the Swedish and then the Russian Empire. The country became independent after the First World War and a War of Independence in 1920 but was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and then by the Germans in 1941. The Red Army returned in 1944 and Estonia was again declared a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Independence finally came in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During the Second World War some Estonians were forced to fight for the Red Army and some for the Wehrmacht – some fought on both sides at different times. Other Estonians fought with the Finnish Army against the USSR in the Winter War and the Continuation War (1941-44). These various conflicts are not well known in the West but they feature in Russian, Finnish and Estonian films. 

When the Soviet Union re-occupied Estonia, Russians were encouraged to move to Estonia and at the same time Estonians were being deported (or themselves fled) or sent to Russian labour camps. This is the background to The Fencer. The number of ‘ethnic Estonians’ in the early 1950s actually living in Estonia was only around 1 million compared to the Russian population of over 100 million and the nearly 200 million in the whole Soviet Empire. Most of The Fencer takes place in the last year of Stalin’s control over the Soviet Union. He died in March 1953. The Fencer is based on a true story which has been fictionalised. 

The Fencer tells of people’s universal need to hold onto their freedom and the right of a small country to defend itself against a superior opponent. Due to the events in Ukraine, I feel our film is astonishingly current. Shivers went down my spine when the second Crimean War began on the same day as our filming.   (Kai Nordberg, Producer of The Fencer)

The genre basis of the story is familiar as a sports drama in which a former star athlete will find and train a small local team who will go to a national final and fight against the odds. This is then combined with the nationalist story.

The film looks very good in a CinemaScope ratio as photographed by Tuomo Hutri and I was impressed by the lead performance.

Fire in Babylon (UK 2010)

The triumphant West Indian team celebrating a wicket by Michael Holding at the Oval

This is a highly enjoyable film. It couldn’t really fail as a nostalgic celebration of arguably the most successful sports team of all time. But it’s a good watch for all audiences – whether or not you remember the West Indies Test team of the 1970s and 1980s. There is actually relatively little about cricket itself as a game, but a great deal about what it represented as a political and cultural force for Caribbean people in the period.

The documentary covers the years between the humiliating test defeat of the West Indies in Australia in the winter of 1975-76 up until the 5-0 ‘Blackwash’ of England in the summer of 1984. This was the period in which Clive Lloyd led a team which was transformed from stereotypical ‘calypso cricketers’ into a honed squad of invincibles, in the process forging a symbol of a unified West Indian identity across the disparate countries of the Caribbean and bolstering the struggle against racism and colonialist hangovers.

The events are carefully narrativised so that there is a conventional story arc. So, the success of the West Indies in the inaugural World Cup in London in 1975 is not included. They beat Australia twice in the one day competition and that wouldn’t have been a good starting point. Instead we get to see them pulverised by Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson. I’d forgotten this and it was quite a shock. Indian commentators have noted that the film also misrepresents the next series they played against India. But apart from these manipulations the story is told in a straightforward way using archive footage and talking heads. The latter are often photographed in a stylised way, in a studio or on location in the Caribbean. As well as the cricketers themselves, the ‘interviewees’ include the great Bunny Wailer and several highly entertaining supporters. Interspersed are performances from a mento band, reggae stars like Tapper Zukie, archive footage of Bob Marley and, my favourite, a song by Short Shirt, the Antiguan calypsonian in the most outrageous costume I’ve seen in a while – I can’t begin to describe the exact colour of his hat and shoes! The impact of these interviews/performances filmed in HD video and with pulsing graphics using the African colours of green, red and gold  is all the greater because of their juxtaposition with the archive video footage on a big screen using digital projection.

The strength of the film is its clear connection between pride in cricket and pride in African heritage, emphasised by the comments of Bunny Wailer. It’s always been a sensitive area to comment on the sporting prowess of Black athletes because of the danger of ‘reducing’ Black achievement to physique rather than an overall appreciation of skill and intelligence. The film avoids this, I think, by its careful linkage of the US models (Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics etc.) with Clive Lloyd’s leadership and the fantastic individual stars of this great team. How could you not respond to the beauty, grace and power of Michael Holding (aka ‘Whispering Death’) surely the most aesthetically pleasing as well as the most lethal sight on a cricket pitch? What could top the sight of Viv Richards ducking bouncers and then sending the next ball to the boundary rope? The filmmakers have chosen the interviewees carefully so that we meet the most articulate and inspiring members of the team. Richards is a commanding presence, Andy Roberts is dry and deadly and Gordon Greenidge (who came to live in England aged 14) is the most dignified. Importantly there is one player whose presence in the documentary cuts through the possibility of too much simple idolatry on behalf of the audience. Colin Croft, one of the four bowling greats, accepted the money to join the rebel tour of South Africa in 1983 when the apartheid regime attempted to discredit the sporting boycott of South Africa. Croft survived the subsequent ban and shame to return as a respected commentator today – but many of the others on that tour had their careers, and indeed their lives, destroyed by the critical backlash. This part of the story, in which West Indian cricketers who were paid very little in comparison with modern stars were tempted by a chance to lift themselves out of relative poverty, is matched by the story of the Kerry Packer circus – ‘World Series Cricket’ in the late 1970s which saw Clive Lloyd’s team at odds with its own administrators in a bid to get better pay and conditions. The two stories underline the politics of international cricket.

The film works well politically. The focus on Australia, England and South Africa is justified in putting across the symbolism of the defeat of racism and colonialism. English cricket suffered from poor administration and the influence of the ‘backwoodsmen’ who still seemed to feel that they were running the Empire. The decision to make Tony Greig, a South African, captain of England at this time was outrageous. During the desperate days of overt racism in the 1970s and 1980s, most people I knew supported the West Indians unreservedly and to see Michael Holding dismiss Greig twice at the Oval in 1976 is one of my most cherished memories. (For those who don’t know cricket, I should point out that most of these West Indian test cricketers also played county cricket in England and they were heroes to UK crowds as well.)

The film was directed by Stevan Riley, a young British guy who has clearly impressed Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd and gained access to the right people. I hope the film gets seen in the Caribbean and persuades more young people to get interested in cricket so that the Test team can be rejuvenated. It’s great too to hear all the music again and it must be time for more films from the region. Go and see this film or get hold of the DVD – it’s pure joy. I’m off to dig out  some Linton Kwesi Johnson whose dub poetry is used in one clip.

Official trailer: