For a film about a team of rugby players competing for a hallowed Cup, Poppy Stockell’s Scrum shirks much of what is expected of a sports documentary, taking one of the early lines of voiceover as its mantra – “it’s not just rugby.” What it is, then, is a story about connection and acceptance. Following the 2014 Bingham Cup campaign of Australia’s first gay and inclusive rugby union team, the Sydney Convicts, the film finds its strengths in small, intimate moments – the camaraderie of training sessions, a shared bottle of wine during a meeting of coaches, a look of confusion turning to relief in a team planning session – all of which are more powerful than all of the actual game footage we see.
Whilst the team’s competition arc is the premise, the focus falls on four members of the Sydney Convicts squad – Aki Mizutani, a loosehead prop who emigrated to Australia from Japan after coming out; Brennan Bastyovanszky, a Canadian expat (and also a loosehead) who found solace in the Convicts after being discriminated against in his former Sydney rugby club; Pearse Egan, a bubbly Irishman who plays in the forwards of the Convicts 2nd XV and has battled with bullying; and Charlie Winn, the player-turned-coach who led the Convicts to Bingham victory both on and off the field. The film takes its structure from the road to that Cup, awarded in a biennial competition for gay rugby teams around the world which, for the first time, is being held in Sydney.
Homosexuality in sport has been a hot button issue for some time, the widely publicised Michael Sam saga in the NFL perhaps the biggest conversation starter in recent times, yet last month’s Out On The Fields study in Australia found that LGBT sportspeople are still not widely accepted in their chosen sport. The fact that this year’s Frameline Film Festival has a program section, Game Changers: Sexuality & Sports, which groups together five documentaries (and one shorts collection) addressing LGBT identity in sport, shows that filmmakers are eager to address the topic, though the rate of actual progress is still alarmingly slow. That said, Scrum never feels like it is made to push an agenda or structured to address the issue of discrimination in sport, yet it manages to be incredibly effective in that regard; the commitment to the intimacy of its subjects rules over all, and the underlying commentary on intercultural acceptance as well (three of the four protagonists are migrants, there’s an aside about the Indigenous members of the Convicts team as well) also means it avoids being pigeon-holed as just a film about gay sportsmen.1
We hear, mainly through voiceover, the personal tales of rejection and discrimination, which pack an emotional punch whilst never feeling forced; it’s a testament to the skill of Stockell and her production team that they manage to make the stories of these men flow so naturally, the lack of talking heads interviews helps here. Somewhat thankfully, though, the film doesn’t eschew all sporting clichés, in particular the Friday Night Lights-esque motivational motto of the team, which is heard in the opening scene and in a pre-Cup psych-up speech, and which proves to be just as powerful for the viewer as it is the players in the room – “Convicts forever. Forever a fucking Convict.”
Having Colin Stetson provide the film’s score is an inspired choice, his haunting saxophone lines a wonderful tonal obfuscation; as with his work in Alexandre Moors’ Blue Caprice the use of his music makes everything on-screen so much more arresting and mysterious. Jody Muston’s clean and sharp cinematography grounds the film in a fashion both intimate and gripping. The use of fish eye lenses and GoPros, mainly on players and referees during matches, is a less welcome visual device; whilst these shots create an instant link to more mainstream sports journalism it disrupts what is a carefully constructed visual approach. Muston and editor Jason Last seem to be on the same wavelength, though, as the controlled and stylised shots of the men at training or in their homes takes precedence over any footage of the actual games, which are reduced to snapshots and scorecards. It’s a refreshing distancing from other sports documentaries, rather than turning their matches into epic battles the film instead reaffirms the importance of the idea of the Convicts collective over the game they play.
Some of the film’s limitations stem from its runtime; being less than an hour in length explains the decision to narrow the focus to this particular team of Convicts players, yet the viewer can be left wanting more about the state of rugby clubs in Sydney, the history of the team, and the personal narrative of Winn with regards to being a player as well.2 This paring back is in keeping with the tone of the film, though, and the lack of focus on the game itself distinguishes Scrum from an earlier film about the Convicts, the more conventional Walk Like a Man, which Stockell worked on as a second unit director.3
There’s an incredibly affecting scene near the film’s end where the players each speak about what Convicts rugby means to them. It’s right after their semi-final match, and they sit on benches around the edges of their locker room. It’s in that environment, that well-worn location for inspiring speeches and clichéd masculinity in sports narratives, that these men bear their souls to one another and to the camera. This is the film’s true climax, the words exchanged in this room about identity and acceptance, rather than the attainment of silverware. In that moment, Stockell’s Scrum is clearly defined – an absorbing, honest and emotionally potent story of human connection.