In the mood for, in some of these featured picks, a literal home run? Sports provide the backdrop for this mix of documentaries. Film titles are linked with information on where to watch.
A secretive deal to transfer Muslim players to an Israeli soccer team triggers a crisis of politics, money and race in this timely and cautionary tale of nationalism and demagoguery. The Beitar Jerusalem Football Club is the only professional soccer team in Israel to have never signed an Arab player, a source of pride for the core fan base, as well as right-wing politicians who seek to exploit racial purity sentiments. The team is thrown into disarray midway through a successful 2012-13 season, when Russian billionaire-owner Arcadi Gaydamak strikes a deal to recruit two Muslim players from Chechnya. What follows is a national scandal, as hate-filled fans erupt in anger and vitriol, and the bewildered Chechnyan players are targeted for a torrent of abuse. When the team captain attempts to bridge the divide, he pays dearly for it. In holding a mirror to Israeli society, this documentary reveals an ugly and unsettling reality at the intersection of tribalism and sports. Featured in the 2017 AJFF.
The life of the record-setting Jewish sprinter and sports broadcasting trailblazer is memorialized in this buoyant biography. Nicknamed the “Flatbush Flash,” Depression-era Bronx native Marty Glickman was chosen as a member of the U.S. track and field team alongside Jesse Owens for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but was dropped at the last minute to appease Hitler. He returned home to a stellar college football career before becoming a radio announcer for the New York Knicks, Giants and Jets. He capped his legendary career by helping found HBO Sports. Director James L. Freedman movingly captures the inspirational 50-year career of this athlete, broadcaster and passionate advocate of sports as a means of transcending divisions created by race, class and religion. Featured in the 2013 AJFF.
Heading Home: The Tale of Team Israel
A stirring story of sports, patriotism and personal growth, this documentary, featured during the 2019 AJFF, charts the underdog journey of Israel’s national baseball team competing for the first time in the World Baseball Classic. After years of defeat, Team Israel finally ranks among the world’s best in 2017, eligible to play in the prestigious international tournament. Their line-up included several Jewish American Major League players—Ike Davis, Josh Zeid and ex-Braves catcher Ryan Lavarnway—most with a tenuous relationship to Judaism, and never having set foot in Israel. Their odyssey takes them from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where they are greeted as heroes, to Seoul where they must debunk their has-been, wannabe reputations. As their “Mensch on a Bench” mascot tags along, the team does much soul-searching, discovering the pride of representing Israel on the world stage.
Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story
A rousing homage to the national pastime sure to delight fans and non-fans alike, this documentary, featured in the 2011 AJFF, charts the historic and cultural contributions of the greatest Jewish major leaguers ever to step onto the field. Transcending sports, director Peter Miller takes a broad view of baseball's transformational role in Jewish assimilation, overcoming bigotry, and Black-Jewish solidarity during the Civil Rights movement. Spotlighting mythic Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, the film also profiles legends Andy Cohen, Al Rosen, Yogi Berra, Norm Sherry, Bob Feller, and Atlanta's own Ron Blomberg, as well as modern All-Stars Shawn Green and Kevin Youkilis. A treasure trove of photos and game footage are elevated by musical cues ranging from Benny Goodman to Yo-Yo Ma. Warmly narrated by Dustin Hoffman, this rigorously researched script by Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Ira Berkow is a celebration of pride and passion for all ages and faiths.
Olympic Pride, American Prejudice
This documentary, featured in the 2017 AJFF, examines the complex racial politics of the 1936 Summer Games in Nazi Germany as experienced by the trailblazing but largely forgotten athletes most impacted. Facing its own socioeconomic unrest at home due to the Great Depression and segregationist laws, the U.S. was torn between boycotting and competing in Hitler's Olympics. As Nazi policies persecuting minorities and promoting Aryan superiority intensified, a national debate erupted over sending 18 African-American athletes and their Jewish counterparts to Berlin. Most ironic and surprising, is not the actions of Germans, but the implicit bias of U.S. Olympic officials in the dispute, and the discrimination that awaited back athletes upon their return. The victorious American team, however, emerges as a symbol of the racial equality the Nazis loathed, paving the way for the Civil Rights movement to come.
On the Map
An unforgettable upset victory by the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team against a Cold War adversary is exhilaratingly recounted in this documenary featured at the 2017 AJFF. Demoralized by the Yom Kippur War, the Munich massacre, and its sagging economy, Israel was hungry for a collective triumph as it pursued the 1977 European Championship Tournament. Facing impossible odds, the underdog Maccabi Tel Aviv team, comprised of Israeli players and NBA also-rans, is matched up against the powerhouse Soviets in the semifinals. In a David-and-Goliath battle, the Israelis topple the four-time defending Soviet champs, and in doing so, rally a nation. The so-called "Miracle on Hardwood" is thrillingly related by team captain and Israeli basketball hero Tal Brody, NBA great Bill Walton, former NBA Commissioner David Stern, and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, along with other observers from the sports and political worlds.