Review: Sunday Ball (Rocha, 2015) – SFIFF 2015

sundayball

Photo by Leo Bittencourt. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Every frame of Sunday Ball, a documentary about the annual inter-favela football championship in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, could be worthy of a National Geographic spread. The footage is sensuous, at times arresting.

I say “about” the championship, but that description is not quite right. To be “about” something implies distance, analysis, figuring out, narrating. Like The Iron Ministry, Sunday Ball is instead immersive–more a curated art show than a traditional documentary. Brazilian director Eryk Rocha creates a visceral experience, as undiluted and uninterpreted as a film can be.

But, at a scant 71 minutes, Sunday Ball still feels too long to me, a viewer not even casually interested in soccer. Neither, however, is the film made for football enthusiasts (except that someone with an attachment to the sport might better appreciate its importance in community life, and better appreciate the purity of the game played at this level, untainted by corrupt FIFA administrators, greedy owners, and mercenary players). Football is the vehicle, the means, not the end (the end is loftier: people, passion, and glory). Hence, the documentary offers little emotional context for the game–beyond the evident intensity of the players and fans. Here Rocha’s aesthetic standard trumps any narrative imperative.

Which may suit some who have the attention span or the interest or simply a predilection to visual art. Those who do will be rewarded to a sensory treat, scene after gorgeous scene of dribbling, sliding, kicking, chanting, singing, praying, often drawn out in lush slow-motion shots and accompanied by music ranging from tribal drumming to operatic arias.

I confess I did not have the patience. I squirmed through a good deal of the film, looked at the time. I’ve read that both Sunday Football and The Iron Ministry flow from a new school of filmmaking pioneered by the Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which merges anthropology and visual and environmental studies. (The Iron Ministry‘s Sniadecki may be a direct product of the lab while Rocha merely inspired by.) The best products of this school, or so The New York Times‘ Dennis Lim argues, “are potent reminders that documentary and art are not mutually incompatible.” I had never thought that they were, but it’s true that films like Sunday Ball seem more similar to the “high art” forms typically found in a museum or art show than to their conventional counterparts, which more closely resemble journalism.

At any rate, Sunday Ball is indeed a visually stunning documentary, a work of ethnography, and an homage to beauty, wherever it may be found.

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