By Christopher Campbell | Spout October 21, 2011 at 3:13AM
It's hard not to mention "Hoop Dreams" when reviewing the new documentary "Elevate," which similarly follows young NBA hopefuls on the path to the college level. But we mustn't compare them any more than we need to mention how much better "Citizen Kane" is in any fiction film review. "Elevate" is a mediocre film, and this is fine I suppose. Mediocre isn't bad, it's just ordinary and average, which is common with docs. Common being another word to isolate and use to describe this simple work. I do wonder, though, why more docmakers don't really aim to be the best, especially when that's just the sort of story they're selling on screen.
"Elevate" is directed by first-time filmmaker Anne Buford, who found her subject matter by way of her brother, San Diego Spurs GM R.C. Buford. Through him she met Dallas Mavericks scouting director Amadou Gallo Fall, who founded a boarding school in his native Senegal called SEEDS Academy (SEEDS = Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal). It's here, in Dakar, that we meet our four protagonists, Assane, Aziz, Byago and Dethie. Some of them will achieve one of the academy's goals for its students, a scholarship and VISA to study and play in America, specifically at prestigious prep schools in Illinois and Connecticut. From there they'll be scouted by universities and perhaps one day they'll go pro.
The narrative for these guys is simple, but not much more interesting than what you can already imagine it to be. Although we're told about the poor conditions of Senegal, they do not seem to be escaping any real terrible hardships, and they all hope to return home after whatever success they achieve. So there's not much immediate drama, nor does much develop. One boy ends up denied a VISA and we see him cry loudly on the floor. For the rest it's a matter of fish-out-of-water scenarios, which puts them in a figurative cage for the viewer to observe as basketball-playing "Crocodile Dundees." Their new homes are colder, they're forced to attend church even though they're Muslim, they can't tell what has pork and what doesn't (what is this "hot dog"?), they don't know how to tie a necktie, and their language barrier creates awkward conversations with girls.
The film comes very close to doing exactly what the guys complain happens with Americans who think they live in the jungle and are surprised they're multilingual and intelligent. Buford says she wants the film to transform perceptions of Africa, but her means of doing so is to sink and meet the ignorant on their own level and try to raise understanding from there. This can work, but it also keeps our viewpoint as a distanced outsider's. Assane and the rest remain exotic others throughout.
And yet there is a lot of emotionality to be found in the tales of these remarkable giants (three of them are about 7ft. tall), who are portrayed as having huge hearts and an initial shyness that's especially endearing given their size. Instead of continually reminding us that the boys are strangers in a strange land, why not elaborate and further address the issues of their fears, loneliness, homesickness, even their difficulty with the climate change? One of the brightest students ends up struggling to make good grades, even receiving a B in French, one of his native languages. However, we're not really let in more than we're given a reason being that it's a communication issue. Well, it appears to be more than that, and this honestly would be more interesting than continuing with footage on the court. We know they're great basketball players, and we know that they're great human beings. What else you got?
Part of the issue, for me, is that their talent for basketball (and no, they're not perfect players; their need for improvement and progress is focused on) is the drive of both the film's narrative and the extent of its inspiration and hopefulness. If we accept "Elevate" as strictly about these specific kids, fine. The film seems to want them to be more representative of all of Africa and a universal desire to come to the U.S. and achieve the American Dream. One astute boy reminds us that now that he's here, he's not only up against Americans but NBA hopefuls from Europe, Asia and elsewhere. To get where he is, though, he was not up against or standing in for the whole Senegalese or African peoples, because his athletic attributes are not achievable by just anyone.
One of the main faults I see for a documentary like "Elevate" is that it's one of these films shot over a long period of time, and its spottiness in presence is a problem. I don't disregard how difficult it is to get around this issue. Much of the time, though, it's the spaces between what's documented that I keep wondering about. Their lives and their feelings. Did they date? Did they have close bonds with other players or students? Why do we only hear about Assane's interactions with and love for faculty members' kids and not shown it? And were there really no arcs to concentrate on that might have offered some climax, for at least one of the characters?
I'm particularly frustrated with another comment by Buford in her Director's Statement, in which she says, "We quickly learned that if your subject doesn't want to talk about something, there isn't a thing in the world you can do to get them to open up." This is totally untrue if you're a strong documentarian who gains proper trust and comfortableness from subjects. Perhaps the irregular filming contributed to the issue? Buford notes she became close to the boys, as opposed to being the detached sort of journalistic filmmaker, but I presume it was more an affinity defined by kindness, respect and care on her end rather than very strong connections. Otherwise I believe there'd be more openness. I accept that the guys had difficulty expressing themselves in English, so let them express in Wolof and translate later. I don't understand.
Anyway, I thank Buford for ultimately welcoming different conclusions about her film. I'm being picky because I want more from documentarians, but I anticipate she'll improve as she continues making films, just as Dethie kept improving his skills on the court throughout the year. And while there are many things I wish were on the screen, what is there isn't bad. It's a passable passive entertainment with adorable, wonderful characters and a basic story. Still, it deserves no high praise any more than an average basketballer deserves an NBA contract.
"Elevate" is now playing in New York City.
Recommended If You LIke: "Boys of Baraka"; "Lost Boys of Sudan"; "The Year of the Yao"