Friday, May 17, 2019

SIFF 2019: Basketball in the Yard in Michael Tolajian's Prison Documentary Q Ball

Harry "ATL" Smith: man of God and man of the Court
(Michael Tolajian, 2019, USA, 97 minutes) 

San Quentin isn't a medium-security facility, like the one my mom worked at in Eagle River, a town just outside of Anchorage (she served as an institutional counselor before transferring to the city to work as a pre-sentence reporter). Most of the men in Michael Tolajian's Kevin Durant-produced documentary are violent offenders. The director, who doubles as senior vice president for Fox Sports Films, documents a season in the life of the San Quentin Warriors.

The goal of the squad isn't just to give the men something to do with their time and energy, but to contribute to their rehabilitation through teamwork and character-building. Star player Harry Smith, 31, is the son of a policeman and a microbiologist. With only a few months left in his seven-year sentence, he hopes to play for the NBA, but if he violates his parole, he'll end up back in prison. For most of the season, the inmates play against civilian teams made up of Bay Area b-ball enthusiasts, but for the final game, they play the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's G League team. Win or lose, every player except for Smith will remain locked up afterward.

Allan "Black" McIntosh
Though it makes sense to focus on the player with the greatest skills, my heart went out to Allan McIntosh, a non-violent offender serving 25 years to life under California's 25-year-old three strikes law (he's served 21 so far). Though not as young or as GQ handsome as Smith, he came across as the deeper character.

Known as Black, he's the kind of guy who's trying to broaden his horizons by studying Spanish and poring over Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which he found relatable in terms of the protagonist's challenges. The civilian world would be a better place with a man like McIntosh in it (Smith, a self-described womanizer, was convicted for an incident of domestic violence).

Tolajian has made a worthy film about a worthy subject, but it wasn't quite as involving as I hoped, particularly in light of other more emotionally raw documentaries about rehabilitative programs, like Brad Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous's The Work (which played at SIFF '17 and aired on PBS's POV), and Signe Taylor's It’s Criminal, which focuses on a collaborative theater program between Dartmouth College and a women's facility in new Hampshire.

I wish the best for all the men in Tolajian's film, which premieres on Fox Sports on May 28, but I wonder if he didn't concentrate on the wrong one.

Q Ball plays SIFF Cinema Uptown on Saturday, May 18, at 12pm and on Tuesday, May 21, at 3:30pm. For more information, please click here.

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