A Review of Flatball
By Chip Chang, August 29, 2017
Flatball: A History of Ultimate. After making its way onto Netflix, I saw my social media feeds blow up with friends sharing it. There was a lot of excitement. After all, an ultimate documentary was just released on Netflix. But that excitement was also coupled with hesitancy from many community members asking themselves the implications of a film that fails to tell so many perspectives. Questions people have asked of the filmmakers of Flatball from the moment it was screened.
And perhaps these criticisms wouldn’t be so strong had Flatball advertised itself as a re-telling of the men’s club team, New York, New York, or the east coast rivalry between male ultimate players from New York City and Boston. But alas, claiming to be a “history of ultimate” is not only an ambitious attempt by a film, but it also limits itself to a single perspective.
For those who have watched the film, or plan to watch the film, I offer a few points to help you to start critically thinking about Flatball and to start discussing it with your teammates.
What does the film claim to do? Does it do so successfully? Why or why not?
Which athletes and club teams can you name after watching the film? Who is not in the film? How are stories of men framed in the film? How are stories of women framed in the film? What do the men interviewed in the film talk about and what do the women talk about? How are men and women framed in relation to one another?
For your non-ultimate friends, family, and co-workers picking it up on Netflix, what kind of impression do you think they will have about ultimate? Do you think those impressions are accurate of the sport?
How does this film compare to the All-Star Ultimate Tour: The Documentary? Who are the different voices that are highlighted?
If you haven’t watched Flatball, here’s a brief recap. The film jumps between the rise of ultimate on the east coast, with a focus on the men’s club team NY, NY in the 1980s, with flashes of what’s happening in 2012 - the MLU, the AUDL, and the World Ultimate Club Championships. In between this, they sprinkle in some international news highlighting the organization Ultimate Peace, a couple (men’s) World Championship tournaments abroad, NexGen, and Japan’s win over USA (Fury) in 2012.
I’ll let you think about the questions I posed, but here are some things to consider.
Women in ultimate appear roughly 12 times in the film. This includes interviews, images in montages, and b-roll. And besides the two minutes and ten seconds that briefly touch on Japan’s Worlds win over Fury in 2012 (most of which is about spirit of the game and not the two teams themselves) there is roughly 40 seconds devoted to either women’s highlights or interviews.
And in one of those interviews with Claire Desmond, the filmmakers chose a clip where Desmond is talking about Beau Kittredge. If you’re reading this and know a thing or two about Desmond and/or Fury, then you know that there’s a million other things they could have chosen to include. For instance, how Fury has won nine National Championships (seven in a row and at least one that included an epic comeback in the finals) and has represented Team USA eight times.
For the sake of those who argue, “The filmmakers put a lot of money, time and energy into this, why are you criticizing them?” I’ll respond with this.
First, the Indiegogo campaign that crowd-funded $36,805 claimed, “Flatball is the first all-encompassing documentary positioned to showcase the sport to an audience that is not yet familiar with it.” All-encompassing. Was that language used for the purpose of crowdfunding enough money? Or from their perspectives, is this film what they believe to be “all-encompassing”?
Second, why claim to be “a history of ultimate” when it is incredibly limited in both scope and research? I will let documentary filmmakers speak to the quality of the film itself, but as a historian in training, the argument that Flatball is a history of ultimate is not only inaccurate, but it continues to perpetuate the erasure and devaluation of female athletes, their stories, and contributions. The films defenders will argue that it only claims to be a history and not the history. So why not specify which “history” is being told? What about Flatball: A History of Men’s Ultimate? Moreover, at the same time that a slice of men’s ultimate history is being told, women in ultimate are also making headlines and actively participating, yet their presence is ignored. Because while Revolver was in Japan representing Team USA in 2012, Fury and Blackbird were there too, representing the women’s and mixed divisions respectively.
Moreover, if Flatball was one of many ultimate documentaries, perhaps the criticism would be less harsh. However, it’s one of the only documentaries that discusses a history of ultimate. And because of what it claims to do and its failure to come through on that promise, people are pushing back. And we should be because history is largely written from a single perspective that excludes many voices and to ignore the voices of women, people of color, and queer folks erases a fundamental part of our sport that makes it so great.
But what about the origins of ultimate and the young men who started ultimate at Columbia High School? Shouldn’t we pay homage to those young men?
Well, it turns out women started ultimate too. From Suzanne Fields in the book, Ultimate: The First Four Decades, she writes, "Women had been involved with Ultimate since the sport began at Columbia High School. By the spring of 1971, eight of the 23 people in the Columbia team photo were women."
So again, whose version of history does Flatball tell us?