London 2012 film stands alongside Olympic greats
Monday, 26 November 2012
Bud Greenspan, who along with Leni Riefenstahl was undoubtedly the filmmaker who has done more than anyone to bring the Olympics to life on celluloid, was an unabashed fan of the 17 days of glory.
"They're two weeks of love," he once told an interviewer. "It's Like Never Never Land. Like Robin Hood shooting his arrow through the other guy's arrow. It's a privilege to be associated with the best in the world. How many times are you with the best in the world in something? They bring things forward that they don't ordinarily do."
For Greenspan, an unforgettable New Yorker who in later years always wore large, dark-framed glasses atop his shaved head because, his partner claimed, it was the only way he could remember where they were, the Olympics was a labour of love from the moment he discovered it when, as a 21-year-old, he delivered news of the 1948 Olympics in London to the folks back home by dialling in long distance to report what he had seen.
Caroline Rowland never met Greenspan but she knows how he felt those days 64 years ago and it is highly appropriate that after he died of Parkinson's disease on Christmas Day in 2010 it was to her that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) turned to to produce the official film First for London 2012, which the American had been originally been signed up to do.
"I really, really wanted to do this film when the opportunity came," Rowland tells insidethegames. "I knew it would be a really significant moment in my career, my life. This was my first opportunity to make my directing debut. I'd produced for a long time and I've directed some small things but this is my first feature film."
We are sat in the London headquarters of New Moon, whose offices nestle between Oxford Street and Regents Street, the company Rowland founded in 1996 with her £1,500 ($2,500/€1,900) life savings after she quit her job as an advertising executive with J Walter Thompson when she was overlooked for a promotion.
Rowland is remarkably calm considering that in the editing suite just a few feet away her team are going through hundreds of hours of film they have shot in the build-up to and during London 2012 to produce the 109-minute film, which had its public release last Friday (November 23) and for which the DVD went on sale today.
Her own Olympic journey had its roots in London's bid when she produced the widely-acclaimed film that was shown at the final presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at its Session in Singapore in July 2005 and which was credited with helping the British capital upset the odds to beat Paris and be awarded the Games.
Producing bid films is a lucrative business and, after London, it is no wonder that Rowland's skills were in high demand. Since London she has gone on to have further success with Sochi's 2014 Winter Olympic bid and with Qatar in their controversial campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Most recently New Moon worked with Pyeongchang to bring the 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics to South Korea and is expecting to work with one of the bidders for the 2020 Olympics.
But, joining a select group of directors who have produced Olympic movies alongside the likes of Riefenstahl, Greenspan and Kon Ichikawa, the Japanese film legend who produced Tokyo Olympiad, the widely acclaimed documentary on the 1964 Games in the Japanese capital, is a singular honour for the 44-year-old Rowland.
The movies and the Modern Olympics were born in the same historical period - December 1895 and April 1896 respectively. Both may have had their ups and downs in the ensuing 100 plus years but each remains grand institutions on a massive scale and it is impossible to imagine neither existing.
The first Olympics to feature a specially produced film were Paris in 1924 when a full 10-reel 100-minute effort was produced. Of course, the best known film associated with those Games is the Academy Award winning movie Chariots of Fire, made in 1981, which chronicles the rivalry between British sprinters Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who won the 100 metres and 400m respectively at those Games. But at the time the star of the official film was Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, the original "Flying Finn", who won five gold medals, including the 1500 and 5,000 metres.
It was Riefenstahl who redefined the art of the Olympic movie. She was hired by Adolf Hitler, who saw the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a not to be missed propaganda opportunity. Having already produced three films for the Nazi Party, including the Triumph of the Will in 1934, still the best-known example of a propaganda in film history, Riefenstahl was the obvious choice.
The film was released in 1938, much to the anger of Germany's Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who had wanted it out a few weeks after the Games had finished, in two parts: Olympia 1. Teil - Fest der Völker (Festival of Nations) and Olympia 2. Teil - Fest der Schönheit (Festival of Beauty). Many advanced techniques, which later became industry standards but which were groundbreaking at the time, were employed. These included unusual camera angles at high speed, smash cuts, extreme close-ups and placing tracking shot rails within the stands.
The film won a number of prestigious film awards but fell from grace, particularly in the United States when, in November 1938, the world first became aware of the atrocities being committed against the Jews under Hitler's regime. Riefenstahl was touring the US to promote the film at that time and was immediately asked to leave the country. While undoubtedly a propaganda film for Hitler and Nazism, Riefenstahl did do justice in the film to Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals at those Games did more to burst the myth of Aryan supremacy than any politician could ever have done.
But if Riefenstahl belonged to a different age then Greenspan's movies are still fresh in many Olympic fans memories. His first Olympic-themed movie was in 1964 when, fittingly perhaps, he accompanied Owens to Berlin to film Jesse Owens Returns to Berlin, which one reviewer described as having "the power of an epic Greek drama".
Greenspan produced a film on every Olympics - Summer and Winter - between Los Angeles in 1984 and Vancouver 2010 but his personal favourite story came from the first one he made, at Mexico City in 1968. Ethiopia's Mamo Wolde, the winner of the marathon, had long finished when Greenspan noticed the runner at the back of the field, Tanzania's Steven Aquari, who was struggling because of injury, somehow determined to complete the 26.2 mile course even though he had to move through a combination of a hop and limp.
Greenspan and his crew kept the camera rolling and captured the moment as Aquari crossed the line. "My country didn't send me 5,000 miles to start the race," Aquari told Greenspan. "They sent my 5,000 miles to finish it." It remains the quote that best sums up the spirit of the Olympics. It was to become a hallmark of Greenspan's films that he focused on the perseverance and the human spirit of the competitors he shone the limelight on.
Watching 16 Days of Glory, the film Greenspan directed about Los Angeles in 1984, is one of the reasons why I fell head over heels in love with the Olympics, an enduring affair that shows no sign of abating. Greenspan probes the epic decathlon battle between Britain's Daley Thompson and West Germany's Juergen Hingsen. His most gripping tale, however, is that of Britain's Dave Moorcroft - the world record holder in the 5,000m at the time. A debilitating pelvic injury rules out the possibility of a medal, but, just like Aquari nearly 20 years earlier, he grits his teeth and finishes the race nonetheless.
Like Greenspan, Rowland has concentrated in First on telling personal stories set against the drama of the Games. The film focuses on the stories of 12 athletes aged between 17 and 25 competing in the Olympics for the first time. Some of the tales you would think were well known, such as Kenyan David Rudisha, who broke the world 800m record; Missy Franklin, the American teenage swimmer who won five gold medals; and Laura Trott, the young British cyclist who won twice in the Velodrome. But Rowland brilliantly chronicles their Olympic journeys uncovering plenty of hidden gems along the way (I won't tell you what they are so as not to spoil them).
The dozen athletes featured were chosen from an initial spreadsheet of 4,600 names supplied by National Olympic Committees and international federations at the start of this year. The list was whittled down as some fell by the wayside due to injury or lack of form until Rowland was left with 200 potential characters for her film. "We then divided up by continent, by sport, and then ultimately by story," explains Rowland.
By May the final list had been drawn up and Rowland begun following them on their journeys. "I was very concerned that not everyone was a hard-luck story, because it's so easy to get drawn into thinking, 'Oh my God, the trial over adversity here and the trial over adversity there' and then you end up with 12 stories that suggest that to be good at sport you have to have some kind of awful past, and I really didn't want to go down that line at all," she says. "I wanted to get a sense of the diversity of culture and commitment to sport and social dynamics."
But inevitably tales emerge of battling against the odds, like the American gymnast John Orozco, who was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents and who was nearly killed in a gangland fight, and Majlinda Kelmendi, the Kosovo judoka forced to compete for Albania because her home country is not part of the Olympic family.
I was familiar with Kelmendi's tale having interviewed her as she tried unsuccessfully to convince IOC President Jacques Rogge to let her compete under the Kosovo flag. It is heartbreaking to watch how she struggles to come to terms with knowing that she would be forced to represent a country she did not want too and then to fail to fulfil her potential in London by being knocked out in the second round, leaving the mat in tears convinced she had let her nation down.
Orozco's story was one I did not know about. Twice, first in the team event and then in the individual all-round final, the 19-year-old slipped during his routine on the pommel horse, supposedly his strongest event, to see his medal chances slip away. He also fell on the vault during the team event and blamed himself for the fifth-place finish of the US squad, which had been considered a medal favourite. But the pride of his parents, William and Damaris, still shines through.
In thrilling contrast, First also follows South African swimmer Chad Le Clos, the young South African swimmer who caused one of the shocks of the Games by beating Michael Phelps to claim gold in the 200m butterfly to instantly catapult him - and his father Bert - into superstardom.
"I think the thing that I really wanted to go out and capture in this film is this notion of 'the moment' being the only thing that matters in your whole world," says Rowland. "'The Moment;' whether you touch the wall first or you don't. There is nothing before and nothing after; that's all that matters to an athlete."
There is also the uplifting story of Ireland's Katie Taylor as she aims to make history by becoming among the first women to win a gold medal in boxing as the sport makes its debut on the Olympic programme at London. A born-again Christian out of the ring, silent assassin inside it, Taylor defies the stereotypical image that so many critics wanted to hang around female boxers' necks. And, having been in ExCeL, when she beat Russia's Sofya Ochigava in the final it gives me goosebumps all over again when the film brilliantly captures the atmosphere created by the thousands of Irish fans who descended on the arena that afternoon to cheer on Taylor.
Other athletes to feature in the film include Australian BMX rider Caroline Buchanan, Chinese diver Qui Bo, French sprinter Christophe Lemaitre and Brazilian swimmer Bruno Fratus. Rowland even manages to squeeze a romantic element in the film thanks to Heena Sidhu, who represented India in the women's 10 metre air pistol but was knocked out in qualifying partly after taking too long on her first shot, leading to her being criticised back home. But there is at least a happy ending as she is filmed heading back to India to marry coach Ronak Pandit.
One departure from the Greenspan model is that there is not a separate narrator but the athletes' stories and those of their families, friends and coaches, which were recorded beforehand, provide the narration. "This wasn't a film that went and interviewed people who had either won or lost, it didn't give any of those athletes the opportunity to consider the circumstances that influence the moment," says Rowland. "I wanted to invert that convention and say, 'You know what, even if these 12 people all lose, this is their reality, that's what this film is about.'"
When London last hosted the Olympics in 1948 - the Games that so inspired the pup reporter Bud Greenspan - the official film was directed by Castleton Knight, best known for the 1929 classic The Flying Scotsman (and incidentally the nickname of Eric Liddell). Using state-of-the-art 3-Strip Technicolor cameras The Glory of Sport, which also covered the Winter Olympics in St Moritz earlier in the year, has the same austere feeling that those Games in post-war London have become known for.
"The problem with the film is the totally pedestrian presentation, moving from event to event by the numbers with a camera pointed at competitors and the usual cutaways to spectators applauding," wrote one modern reviewer of The Glory of Sport, whose title came from the Olympic Oath.
There is nothing pedestrian about Rowland's effort which flits breathlessly from continent to continent, country to country, venue to venue, all set to a striking soundtrack provided by Ellie Goulding, Underworld, Michael Kiwanuka, Seye, Jess Mills, Delphic, Olly Murs, Two Door Cinema Club, Jake Bugg, Beach House, Chase & Status, Jack Penate, Snow Patrol and Brandon Flowers.
Rowland's film has already, inevitably, attracted criticism in Britain because it largely ignores the success of Team GB at London 2012. There is only a fleeting shot of London 2012 poster girl Jessica Ennis, which is included more as a bridge so Trott can explain what the omnium is all about by comparing it to the heptathlon. Mo Farah, winner of the 5,000m and 10,000m double, and the Mobot are ignored totally.
For me that helps make the film much more appealing. For those who want to relive the summer from a Team GB perspective I am pretty sure the BBC five disc box set will more than sate their appetites. Born to a Swiss mother, English father and having been brought up in South Africa, Rowland was always going to produce a well-rounded film. This is the Olympics you never knew was happening. And it is all the better for that.
"Being at the Games was like having 12 children competing, it was just horrific," admits Rowland. "Every event you'd sit with your heart in your throat, and you just can't help but be inspired and to feel hugely proud of them, whatever the result.
"These unassuming young people stood on the brink of taking their place as superheroes, not only because of their success in sport, but because of their ability to transcend the lives they were born into - and their power to inspire. Whilst they all have incredible natural talent, they share an ambition, commitment and dedication that should inspire all of us."
Rowland set a record of her own, delivering the finished film within 84 days of the Olympics Closing Ceremony, the first time the official movie has come out in cinemas the same year as the Games, speed which would surely have impressed even the demanding Goebbels.
It would probably make Rowland happier to know, though, that the biggest compliment that she can be paid is that this is a film that Bud Greenspan would have been proud to have made.
To order a copy of First visit the insidethegames Olympic Shop by clicking here
Duncan Mackay is the award winning editor of insidethegames. A former UK Sports Journalist of the Year and UK Sports Internet Writer of the Year, he previously worked for The Guardian and The Observer. London 2012 was the eleventh Olympics he has covered