The Competition Documentary

Back in 2002, I saw the excellent spelling bee documentary Spellbound. It featured a structure that is now familiar to me: in the film’s first half, we meet the competitors. In the second half, we watch them compete. It’s effective narrative arc: make us about the characters, then we can watch them succeed and fail. For the dorky elite of the spelling bee world, it made for a pretty riveting film.

Yesterday I watched Word Play, a 2006 film that applies pretty much exactly the same model to the world of competitive crossword puzzles. Though it lacks the emotional thumb screws that competing kids offer (replacing them with crossword-loving celebrities like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton and the Indigo Girls), the film is another great example of what I’ve come to call “the competition documentary”.

While in Winnipeg last week, I caught part of Ballet Girls on Bravo, yet another film that seems to fit this sub-genre:

Ballet Girls is a behind-the-scenes documentary series that follows nine girls on a quest to land the coveted role of Clara in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker. The girls come from across Canada – gap-toothed 10-year-olds and willowy teens with ballerina dreams dancing in their heads. In this “Canadian Idol” of the ballet world, ambitious young dancers compete to share the stage with professionals, taking the first pointed step in their own careers as dancers.

The formula seems to go something like this:

Unusual pastime + obsessive over-achievers (sometimes called anoraks) + competition = compelling movie.

I’m sounding more disparaging than I mean to be–I think it’s an effective and entertaining approach. I wonder the origins of this genre are. Surely they predate Spellbound. Maybe they’re risen in popularity as a kind of legitimate alternative to the hapless dude + ridiculous challenge model of reality television. Any suggestions for other films in this sub-genre?


  1. You’re right – this is also the exact model used for The King of Kong documentary. (Which I still find excellent…)

  2. 2004 – Word Wars – all about Scrabble competitions. It definitely has the obsessive over-achievers.

  3. Akeelah and the Bee comes to mind, along with Cool Runnings (the “obsessive” part could be disputed, I suppose).

  4. One of my songs (“Meltdown Man“) has been used in a documentary released last year called “Paper or Plastic?” about — yes — the World Grocery-Bagging Championship. I link to the movie trailer above, where you can hear my song at the end (from about 1:35).

    I also own “Air Guitar Nation,” about a worldwide air guitar competition, which takes place annually in Finland.

  5. What about “Best in Show”? Fake-u-mentary to be sure, but still compelling (and hilarious), and an apparently accurate depiction of over-achieving dog-show goers from what I’ve heard.

  6. Sport does create the obvious premise for a competition film.

    Case and point:

    This one first looks like an authentic motorsports documentary on the 24 hours of LeMans, which it might be, if they focused as much heart, emotion, and camera time to the opposing team Peugeot (Jacques Villeneuve, no less!)

    It’s essentially a 90+ minute Audi commercial, which I actually quite enjoyed. Aptly titled, the film does contain many truths about the 24 hours of LeMans…but for the record, I don’t think it could really be classified as a documentary. What could we call it? Not a ‘mock-doc’, or ‘agitprop’. Perhaps call it a ‘prop-doc’; that is, a propaganda-like corporate vanity film, a crossbreed of infomercial and music video. Think of the ‘prop-doc’ as a new form of viral marketing.

    You can also download it for free with iTunes (US store only)

    {End of free plug for Audi of America}

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