Glory of the Chiefs

For some basketball is just a game. But what does basketball mean to the players on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian High School basketball team? Almost everything. It’s life for them.

“Chiefs” is a documentary that aired on PBS’ “Independent Lens”. It is about the Wind River Indian High School basketball team and their quest to win the state championship. Even more so, the film digs deep into the personal lives of those on the team and the struggles they face in everyday life.

Al Redman, who has been coaching the team for more than 20 years, has helped the team reach five state championships and go on a 50-game winning streak. But before this film was made, it had been eight years since the Chiefs won a state title and it was about time to bring one back, despite whatever other challenges these boys are facing in their personal lives.

The Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where the documentary “Chiefs” was shot, is the third-largest Indian reservation in the country. It covers over 2,000,000 acres in west-central Wyoming’s Wind River Basin. It’s also one of the poorest areas of the United States. Although success off the court is hard to find for those living there, winning basketball games is another story for these boys.

Basketball is a large influence in their lives. These boys grew up playing together and are now winning one high school basketball game after another together. All over the reservation there is sure to be a basketball hoop in each driveway. Although they face challenges plaguing the reservation, like poverty, alcoholism, and youth suicide, basketball is always there for them.

“Chiefs” is a thoughtful insightful film into how these young Native American men are dealing with life on and off the reservation in the 21st century.

I really appreciated how this film was put together. Although it wasn’t like a short broadcast piece, I picked up on many techniques journalists use. An example would be the shots. Filmmaker Daniel Junge made sure to have plenty of close-ups as well as wide and medium shots. His shots were not short like a broadcast piece, but this only made the story more fluent. He gave the viewer a chance to experience things like the feet of the basketball players on the courts, the pounding of their shoes and the bounce of the basketball. He showed close-ups as they laid the basketball up. Through these special shots, he brought the games to life.

I felt the interview settings were very appropriate for this film. Sometimes he would interview the players while they were relaxing on their beds. It showed their style of life and how calm they were. Each interview setting gave some sort of look into the personality of the player being interviewed. Community members were interviewed outside. This was a way to see them in the setting of the reservation life.

The sound in the film also entranced me. There is a point in the film where Junge takes us to the campfire where the players are getting ready for their ritual. He shows them moving the charcoal around and you can hear the players talking. He opens the scene by clearly placing a mic near the fire. You can hear the crackling of the fire and you feel as if you are really there. It reminded me, that as a journalist, to catch good sound you must be up close and personal with it.

Narration in the film is rare. Voiceovers give the viewer an update on where the basketball team is headed after they won a game. This kept the story moving, but it never got in the way of having the people in the film tell the story. I also appreciated this in the way of journalism story telling. As we have learned, let the people tell the story and as the journalist use your voice to piece parts of the story together. This is exactly what Junge did.

With many of his interviews, Junge laid other video of the person over their voice. This could be them sitting in the stands or walking somewhere. This was visually stimulating to keep the viewer in the moment. I feel like this is a good technique to use in journalism storytelling. It gives the viewer something to look at other than a direct shot of the person’s face.

Junge is not shy to show the challenges these players must face. When they play basketball at other schools he shows the abuse they face from their opponents. After a loss, one of the teams starts yelling that they’ve “scalped them” and how they should go back to the reservation. Moments like these kept the film real. We see how the players from Wyoming Indian School react: calm, cool, and collected.

Overall I really enjoyed “Chiefs”. I truly felt it was a real look into a way of life many don’t think about. From the film I gathered a sense of freedom, but also restrictions in these boy’s lives. The reservation they live on is a peaceful place with beautiful scenery. They seem to enjoy their time on the reservation, but also don’t feel as if they fit in with life outside of the reservation. Many of them head to college only to find themselves coming back home because it just doesn’t feel right for them. One comes back to attend community college and work for AmeriCorps, teaching kids on the reservation. One decides to also attend community college so he can stay home to learn the ways of bull riding from his father. Some do decide to attend college on a basketball scholarship, but even so they will never forgot their life on the reservation.

Through various interviews, compelling camera shots, natural sound, and a little narration Junge is able to give us a look into every aspect of these boy’s lives that make them who they are. Someday I hope to perfect these techniques as well, so I can bring someone else’s story to life like he did.

To check out the film, click below:

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