German filmmaker Dirk Lienig takes his camera to Australia in order to document a gay rugby team called the "Sydney Convicts." His film, which is titled after the team, centers around three players: Stuart, 38, who has a history of drug abuse; James, 23, who hails from a single-parent home; and Brian, a Jamaican who has found his way to a much safer country and left his native land, one of the most violently homophobic nations on Earth, behind.
Stuart draws a line from his early lack of self-esteem to his drug use, and explains that internalized homophobia accounted for his self-destructive behavior. His parents appear at the start of the film to compare the news that their son was gay to the death of a child. But as Stuart’s story unfolds, his happy nature emerges, and his connection to his teammates becomes evident, another clip from the parental interview crops up: Toward the end of the film, Stuart’s mother and father explain that they’ve learned over the last 20 years to accept their son as he is.
Brian explains that he plays on the team because it’s one way to integrate into Australian society. "The whole culture is based on game, pub, game, pub..." The footage of the team’s tough lads scrapping for the ball underscores Brian’s point, and Stuart’s, too. This is hardly a sport for the athletically disinclined or, for that matter, anybody not okay with the prospect of imminent bodily harm. (Brian is forever clutching his mouth guard, which, he frets, is a store-bought model and not a custom-fitted one.)
James does a little parental interviewing of his own, asking his mother to explain something about her relationship to his absentee father. He also works out issues from his early life by turning stories about growing up in a garage into performance pieces.
The documentary doesn’t organize its material well enough to feel polished or complete, and there are stretches where the camera simply records matches and training scrums to a backdrop of music by composer Hanno Busch. This blunts the film somewhat, giving it a home movie feel. Some interesting animation work by Bastian Kalkbrenner promises to add nuance, but in the end it’s unclear just what the animated line drawings of an additional man training with and hanging out with the team is meant to represent.
Overall, this is a film that tackles, in a generally positive way, the issue of gay athletics, though it doesn’t delve much into the "homophobia in sports" angle. Are there teams that refuse to play against the Convicts? Is the team’s name intended as a double entendre, given the being gay was a crime in Australia until state-by-state repeal of so-called "sodomy laws" began in 1975 (with the last state, Tasmania, finally dropping its anti-gay law in 1997)? Is there much in the way of intramural romance on the team? Are the three men profiled here typical of the team’s membership overall? We get no answers to these questions, and we’re not given much in the way of an overall social backdrop (Australian law, by and large, treats gays equitably, and public support there for marriage equality exceeds 50%). We do, however, get a glimpse at the team doing what looks like a rendition of "The Fully Monty," which is nice as eye candy but which seems extraneous to the film as a whole.
As a snapshot of these three individuals, however, the film is rather sweet, and touches, albeit lightly, on themes of family and, in Brian’s case, exile.
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