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Filmmaking class treated to a documentary extraordinaire

Alison McGee | Interrobang | Lifestyles | October 17th, 2011



On October 7 at 7 a.m., the Advanced Filmmaking class from Fanshawe College piled into a bus bound for Toronto. On the agenda for the day: a few guest speakers (which only true film nerds would be interested in reading about) and a Q & A with acclaimed documentary director Steve James following a screening of his 1994 film Hoop Dreams.

The screening took place in the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre, a favourite for the AFM class trips, nestled in the heart of Toronto's entertainment district. The theatre itself is a stunning yet cozy place to enjoy cinema. With a cute café just off the main lobby, a gift shop full of cinematic wonders and a master control room that had the entire class ooh-ing and aah-ing, the Bell Lightbox makes cinephiles feel right at home.

After a brief introduction from James himself, the film — yes, an actual film copy of the movie — began to roll...

Hoop Dreams was shot over the course of four years in the innercity neighbourhoods of Chicago. The filmmakers followed two young African-American boys who were both exceptionally gifted at playing basketball and who both had big dreams of someday playing in the NBA.

William Gates and Arthur Agee, both 14 years old at the time, are recruited to play for the Caucasiandominated Catholic St. Joseph High School in one of the city's more affluent neighbourhoods. They are both offered full scholarships to the school but are faced with the harsh realities of having to sustain a certain grade point average in order to play on the team.

Agee faces difficulties almost immediately. He is placed on the freshman team as opposed to the more competitive varsity team, and he struggles academically. At the end of his freshman year, Agee is forced to return to his neighbourhood school after some complications with the scholarship he is to receive. From there, Agee continues to play basketball throughout high school but is forced to deal with a drug addicted and allegedly abusive father who leaves the family on multiple occasions, a mother who after losing multiple jobs is forced to turn to welfare to support her family, and ever falling grades at school.

Gates begins his high school basketball career with much promise; he is placed on the varsity team and flourishes academically. Throughout his freshman and sophomore years, Gates experiences a string of successes, but the good times don't last. During his junior year, Gates sustains a knee injury that requires numerous surgeries and has a daughter with his girlfriend. Struggling to balance his health, the school, his family and his basketball career, Gates begins to falter.

The film is truly a heartbreaking depiction of the challenges faced by many that can be easily forgotten by those who have been born into privilege. The trials, tribulations, failures and triumphs of both Agee and Gates in Hoop Dreams will have your heart aching for those who dream high, yet struggle for everything they have.

After the nearly three-hour film ended, James returned to the stage to answer the burning questions from the film school audience. James spoke about how "(he) fell in love with Film — with a capital F — when (he) was a kid." The inspiring words from one of documentary cinema's masters certainly reached the students, all hopeful filmmakers themselves.

James also touched on the subject of privacy, personal involvement and attachment with the subjects when making documentaries — something that can be challenging. James shared a story with the audience that is shown partly in the film: the Agee household can't pay their electricity bill and their lights are promptly turned out. What you don't see in the film is that James and his crew raised the money amongst themselves to have the Agees' lights turned back on.

After an enlightening few hours of inspiring films and even more inspiring filmmakers, the AFM crew piled back on the bus and returned home to Fanshawe, each and every one of them more learned and inspired about documentaries than they had been when the left early that morning.
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