Film/Video/TV Annotations


Murderball


MediumFilm
On-Line Video
KeywordsAcculturation, Body Self-Image, Catastrophe, Communication, Depression, Disability, Empathy, Family Relationships, Father-Son Relationship, Freedom, Grief, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Humor and Illness/Disability, Individuality, Love, Men's Health, Mourning, Obsession, Ordinary Life, Pain, Parenthood, Patient Experience, Power Relations, Rebellion, Sexuality, Society, Suffering, Suicide
Summary This documentary film follows the professional and private lives of the 2004 U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team. Murderball is a highly engaging, informative look at the lives of a group of quadriplegic men who are also elite athletes. The sport of "murderball" combines basketball, hockey, and rugby. It is played in custom-built wheelchairs with angled, shield-like metal side plates that make the chairs look like chariots, encouraging the term "gladiators" that is often applied to the players. Invented in Canada in the 1970s, murderball was renamed "wheelchair rugby" or "quad rugby" to make it less offensive to corporate sponsors, but retains its toughness with any name. The sport is played without helmets, and its players tackle each other through chair-to-chair collisions as they try to move the ball to the end zones.

The documentary begins with the 2002 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Sweden, includes team tryouts and competitions with arch-rival Canada, and closes with the Paralympic Games (held two weeks after the traditional Olympic Games end) in Athens, Greece. The film is a fast-paced sports documentary with abundant chair-level footage of action on the court, but also focuses on many aspects of the personal lives of key players, including psychological conflicts and sexuality. While the documentary is focused on the entire team, not individuals, three distinct subplots include the emotional journey of team captain Mark Zupan, including his relationship with the friend whose actions precipitated Zupan's disabling accident over ten years earlier; the passion and resentment of the Canadian team coach Joe Soares, who was cut from the U.S. Team and whose obsession with murderball leaves little space for Soares to appreciate his musically gifted teenage son until his own heart attack; and the experiences of newly disabled athlete Keith Cavill.

Commentary

The film is unparalleled as an exposition of ideas about masculinity. Athleticism and sexuality are key components of culturally constructed masculinity that are made visible through being challenged by disablement. While reviews celebrate the power of murderball (the sport) and Murderball (the film) to overturn stereotypes of disability as emasculating, both are just as fascinating as a window on how disabled men may strategically embrace stereotypes of masculinity (including sexism) to neutralize the stigma of disablement and restore cultural stature. One team member's retort, "We're not going for a ^#^$%#^* hug, we're going for a gold medal," illuminates the ways in which popular (and critical) responses to the film add to its message: they reveal viewers' assumptions about disablement, masculinity, sports, and sexuality; their sense of which assumptions are overturned, and which reinforced, by the film; and their resulting comfort or discomfort. An eye-opening teaching tool, Murderball is an excellent film to compare/contrast with the narrative films The Waterdance, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July (see annotations), all featuring mobility impairments, as well as with other narratives of disablement, masculinity, and sexuality such as Scent of a Woman and My Left Foot (see annotation).

Editor's note, 4/1/2009: An article in the Journal of Visual Culture, "Cripping Heterosexuality, Queering Able-Bodiedness: Murderball, Brokeback Mountain and the Contested Masculine Body," by Cynthia Barounis, may be of interest (Vol. 8, No.1, pp. 54-75, 2009).

 


DirectorHenry-Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
StudioThinkfilm and MTV Films
Year2005
Color/BWColor
Running Time86 minutes
Video SourceVelocity/Thinkfilm
MiscellaneousWon two awards at Sundance Film Festival, 2005; Oscar Nominee 2006.
Annotated by Holmes, Martha Stoddard
Date of Entry 08/02/07
Last Revised 03/21/12