The rise of the documentary in popular culture is a great thing. I've always loved a good documentary, and probably became an anthropologist because I was so fascinated by the ethnographic films we saw each week in my first year at college; much of what I learned from them has stayed with me to this day, decades after the lectures have faded from memory. These days, documentaries play in mainstream cinemas and are on the shelves at your local neighbourhood DVD rental stores. If the rise of the documentary is an effect of the current rage for reality TV, then I welcome it, and hope it persists once that fad has faded.

This 2005 documentary is about wheelchair rugby and several of its top players. The sport originated in Canada in 1977, when it was known as murderball, and is played by "incomplete" quadriplegics - that is, quadriplegics (or "quads") who retain enough function in their arms and/or hands to wheel their rugged gladiator-style chairs around the court. It's a contact sport, and players ram their chairs together and even knock each other over as they try to gain possession of the ball and take it over their team's line. The first international tournament was held in Toronto in 1989, and wheelchair rugby became a Paralympic medal sport in 2000. (Don't confuse the Paralympics, which is for quadriplegic and paraplegic athletes, with the Special Olympics, which is for those with mental disabilities.)

Joe Soares, crippled by a childhood bout of polio, had been a top American player but was rejected for the team in 1996, after which he went to coach the Canadian national team. His defection led some of the younger players to call him Benedict Arnold, and exacerbated a longtime rivalry between the teams from these neighbouring countries. (I'm Canadian, and I'll admit I cheered when the Canadians pulled ahead of the Americans in the last seconds of the qualifying world championships, taking the top-seeded position.) Soares is a driven competitive man who rides his bright but unathletic son hard, but after a heart attack Soares softens, and the looks of joy his son shoots him when he is praised are great to see.

Among the younger players is the charismatic Mark Zupan, a Mad Max-style character with tattoos, a goatee, and an aggressive outspoken manner. As a teenager he and his friend Christopher Igoe got drunk; Zupan went out to sleep it off in the bed of Igoe's truck, unbeknownst to him. Igoe later drove away with Zupan still in the truck bed and got into an accident, flinging Zupan into a canal where he hung onto a tree for 13 hours till someone found him. Zupan was left a quadriplegic (and Igoe was left wracked with guilt), but Zupan made good, going to university, becoming an engineer, getting a job and a girlfriend, and becoming a world class wheelchair rugby player.

Others on the team had been injured by viruses, falls, or fights. But they have all come to terms with their disability, and present a view of the disabled that we are not used to seeing. They are tough, aggressive, independent, yet also do all the things "normal" people do: swim, drive, cook, flirt, and even have sex. (One marries a beautiful woman in Hawaii during the movie.) There's nothing to pity about these guys, and if they caught you trying they'd probably knock the stuffing out of you.

The men speak of a "dark period" during which they learned to adjust to their injuries and figured out how to manage. So the filmmakers also feature a young man, Keith Cavill, newly injured in a motorcycle accident. We see him in the hospital, in rehabilitation, and meeting Zupan at an information session. When he gets into Zupan's tournament chair you can see him begin to see a future for himself pursuing the extreme sports he has always loved. It's a beautiful moment.

Murderball was directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, and is well worth a watch. Highly recommended.

See also http://www.murderballmovie.com/

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