Shooting Hoops With the Dutch Wheelchair Basketball Team

Wheelchair basketball, or rolstoelbasketbal, as it is called in the Netherlands, brings together a group of athletes who at one point thought they'd never play again. Filmmaker Tom Poederbach talks about the making of this short documentary, Perseverance, in an interview below.

The Atlantic: How did you get into documentary filmmaking?

I started out as a (yes) film editor for Dutch National TV way back in 1965. In those days video did not exist. We had the big Ampex recorders, that was it. In the film department, the majority of the work was current affairs items and documentaries. With my journalistic interests, I have always stayed in this area. I was also interested in sports, so my best long form work was in the early eighties, doing sports documentaries. In the meantime I became a cameraman as well, in film and video, so I started to shoot documentaries too. Next to my TV work I started to do corporate movies and we approached that kind of work with a journalistic angle.

How did you discover the story of this team?

For the past two years I have been working closely with two journalists almost half my age. Our collective is called One Saturday Afternoon. We make web documentaries, condensed complete stories about seven minutes long; you can find some on my Vimeo page. A couple of the clips are subtitled. We do only sports related stories and we see sports as entertainment, popular culture. The first clip we made as One Saturday Afternoon was about a soccer goal keeper that wound up in a wheelchair after an operation gone wrong. That is how we discovered wheelchair basketball for the first time. You can watch the documentary about the goal keeper on our Vimeo page too; it’s called A Different Ball Game. We made several shorts in the meantime.

So one day on the lookout for a new subject we found out about this coach looking for soldiers who had returned from Afghanistan with missing legs or paraplegic. That was an intriguing story. So we went to one of the training sessions of the national wheelchair basketball team to meet the coach and see if he would be willing to be the victim of one of our documentaries. So that is how we discovered the story of this team.

We started planning to do a documentary if they qualified for the Paralympics in 2012. We made a three-minute cinematic trailer to give the team more exposure and to help us fund the documentary, and with all the footage we had I created this seven-minute documentary. 


How did you approach filming, and telling their stories? Did anything surprise you?

We did preproduction talks with the coach and decided that we wanted follow three different types of players, one with paraplegia, one who had lost his legs, and one born with an impairment. The main focus is the story of each man and his own surprise at being able to participate in a sport again. They were willing to tell us everything. Hearts and mind were won easily.

The film's strength, which you do not experience directly, comes from the fact that the camera is always below the eye level of the players. The second strength is that I dared to stand right in the middle of the court while they played. I trusted their ability to drive those wheelchairs around me. I explained to them what I wanted and they loved being stars in their own movie.

You see that, you feel that. There were actually no surprises except for the fact that they accepted me so quickly. I felt like a part of their team sometimes. Staging basketball scenes for half a day requires a lot of the players. It is very tiring.

Will you continue to film with them as they go to the championship in September?

I will be joining them in Israel on September 8th to do a sports news item about each match they play, as well a the matches of the ladies’ team. If they finish in the top five they will go to London next year to compete in the Paralympics.

What’s next for you?

Suddenly there is commercial interest in Perseverance and we might be able to get the funds to follow them to London and tell rest of the story.

According to the wheelchair basketball league’s standards, this is a relatively young team , so they will have a second chance in Rio in 2016. But they will need to do very well in the European Championships right now. In October, I will do another corporate movie probably, and in December we are planning to do another One Saturday Afternoon short. I have no plans to retire yet.

For more videos by Tom Poederbach, visit http://www.poederbach.com/. 

Video via Vimeo Staff Picks.

Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg is the executive producer for video at The AtlanticMore

Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg joined The Atlantic in 2011 to launch its video channel and, in 2013, create its in-house video production department. She leads the development and production of original documentaries, interviews, and other video content for The Atlantic. Previously, she worked as a producer at Al Gore’s Current TV and as a content strategist and documentary producer in San Francisco. She studied filmmaking and digital media at Harvard University.

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