"Keepers of the Game" is more than a typical sports documentary. The film, directed by award-winning filmmaker Judd Ehrlich, premiered at the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival Tuesday and highlights the story of the girls' lacrosse team at Salmon River High School in its 2015 season.
Traditionally, most iconic sports films are reserved for the trials and tribulations facing young men as they transition into adulthood. I'm thinking "Coach Carter," "Glory Road," "Remember the Titans," and Ehrlich's previous project, "We Could Be King." It's so easy to name sports films centering on the experiences of men, whereas the same exercise is much more difficult when it comes to stories featuring women.
Yet "Keepers of the Game" carves out a space for women and girls to have iconic stories of their own.
The documentary explores the Salmon River High School girls' lacrosse team as it fights to keep its funding. The team, composed completely of Native Americans players from the Mohawk nation, is forced to raise funds to finish its season and face those who say they shouldn't be playing lacrosse in the first place.
A little history: Lacrosse originated in Akwesasne, New York, where the filming took place. The sport is referred to as a medicine game, or a game meant to heal as well as settle disputes between communities, and is traditionally played only by men and boys. The very fact that these young women pick up lacrosse sticks challenges the paradigm of their heritage, but also serves as an empowerment tool for them.
The film follows the team throughout the season, chronicling its successes and failures and how the difficulties of sports and identity affect the players individually and as a community. One player walks away from the team as she struggles to find her place; another wonders about college and if she'll be successful; and two more wrestle with a newfound draw to their native culture in light of their father's Catholic faith.
Amid all of that, they're trying to score goals, win games and save their team.
It's not often that Native Americans are included in sports storytelling, and "Keepers of the Game" takes advantage of the opportunity to weave a story of identity along with achievement on the lacrosse pitch. The film dances between scenes at the Reservation, or "on the res," and actual matches. Viewers see traditional dances, hear the Mohawk language and witness rituals.
"Keepers of the Game" is as much education as it is inspiration.
Katie Barnes is a Digital Media Associate at ESPN. Follow them on Twitter at @Katie_Barnes3.