Monday, June 20, 2011

HRWFF ’11: The Team

Like Atlanta in America, nearly every African connecting flight transfers through Nairobi. Not just a transportation hub, Kenya was considered the island of ethnic stability on the African continent. So when the deadly 2007 election riots cleaved largely along ethnic lines, many Kenyans were profoundly disturbed. Hoping to heal division, particularly amongst Kenya’s swelling youth population, an experienced but still idealistic television crew began filming a telenovela about a multi-ethnic football (soccer) team. Patrick Reed documented the production and reception of their serial drama in The Team, which screens tomorrow during the 2011 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

John Sibi-Okumu, the eloquent script consultant for the series The Team, explains the urgency of the production when he speculates on the likelihood “the machete brigades are getting ready again” for the 2012 elections. Despite Kenya’s relative prosperity, human nature remains a malevolent force, especially when collected into mobs. The Team documentary captures this in visceral terms when the television crew attempts to film a mob attack in the Nairobi slums that nearly escalates into the real thing. While the chaotic scene ends without serious injury, life will eerily and tragically imitate art shortly after the first season wraps.

There is one unequivocally dirty word in The Team: “tribalism.” Whether as an instrument of distraction wielded by the ruling classes or a reflection of more primal hatred, just about everyone agrees it has been a divisive force, both in Kenya and across Africa. We even hear the current occupant of the Oval Office decry it during a speech in Ghana, his first teleprompter reading in Africa. It is hard to argue with the point made by Sibi-Okumu and others, particularly when we see the embers still flare up amongst the cast, even after walking through a photojournalism installation about the 2007 riots.

For their part, the crew comes across as unfailingly resourceful professionals. Though the series’ cast nearly entirely consists of all first time actors, they all seem at least passable and in some cases quite polished in their roles from what the audience can glean from the making-of scenes. Yet, perhaps the greatest talent would factor directly in the film’s third act heartbreak.

Reed captures some intense human drama, which is actually quite unfortunate for his subjects. On a positive note, the series becomes a hit. Still, the final sequences of cast and crew organizing community screenings to spur teaching encounters feels tacked-on (and falsely hopeful). Nevertheless, The Team has some strong moments and makes some valid points. It is a fairly solid and appropriate selection for this year’s HRWFF. It screens tomorrow, Wednesday, and Thursday (6/21-6/23) at the Walter Reade Theater.