A case study of what separates good documentaries from unforgettable ones
Racing the Rez, a terrific, concise, and Kickstarter-funded gem from Somerville-based filmmaker Brian Truglio, isn’t your typical meditation on high school sports. Sure, it’s got coaches talking about giving it your all, going the extra mile, preparing you for life, training your mind as much as your body, and all that great stuff. And yes, it’s got kids who balance the stress of sports with the challenges of home and grades, and who aren’t quite sure where life will take them. And of course, it shows both sides of a high school rivalry and what it means to be a champion, win or lose.
The difference here is that the rival high schools are Navajo and Hopi, and the setting is the largest reservation in America.
Exploring track teams in such a misunderstood and underrepresented location turns out to be far more than a twist on a familiar narrative. Racing the Rez seizes this opportunity to deliver two messages at once: the incredible power of something as simple as running, and the implied complexity of these kids’ circumstances.
I say “implied” because rather than being central themes, much of what the audience is meant to take away from the film is never explicitly said: It’s very cleverly and respectfully woven into the narrative. On the surface, we get to know a bunch of terrific kids. The natural talent who has no patience for the basics. The kid who doesn’t have natural talent but has gotten to where he is through pure hard work. The kid who isn’t Native American at all, but half-White, half-Puerto Rican. The kid who sees running as his way into college and, therefore, off of the reservation, but worries about his academic skill.
All of them are great characters, but all of them have struggled in ways that we both sympathize with and in ways that are particular to reservation life. This is not an examination of institutionalized racism, the poverty and substance abuse epidemics that face many reservations, or the political difficulties facing virtually the entire Native population. But they are all felt. In fact, many of these problems—delinquent fathers, drugs, alcohol, feeling helpless and marginalized—are problems that plague other regions of the U.S. But the change of scenery counter-intuitively accents the similarities rather than the differences.
Though these kids may not realize it yet, this is not just about grades, championships, or scholarships.
The film opens with a note about the significance of running in Navajo culture—to paraphrase: It is more than fitness or fun. It is a part of becoming a whole person. It has a practical and spiritual purpose.
A good documentary impartially presents the facts on a topic in order to educate the public about a subject worth investigating. A great documentary digs deeper to find some underlying truth hiding between the lines. An unforgettable documentary does both, while making the audience identify on a close, personal level with a topic that they didn’t even know existed two hours earlier.
Racing the Rez, then, is an unforgettable documentary.
RACING THE REZ
SCREENING WITH PANEL FT. COACH CARL PERRY
AUTHOR CHRISTOPHER MCDOUGALL, & BRIAN TRUGLIO
7 MEDFORD ST.
6:30PM/NR/$11 GA, $45 FESTIVAL PASS