Monday, March 18, 2013

The Cheer Ambassadors (2012)

WHO: Linguist and photographer Luke Cassady-Doiron makes his documentary directing debut with this. As a US citizen living in Bangkok since 2005, he could qualify as an "American Asian" filmmaker included at a festival that specializes in films made by Asian American filmmakers. Close enough, right?

WHAT: The Cheer Ambassadors is a documentary as peppy, poppy, and eager to inspire audiences as is its subject: the Bangkok University coed cheerleading squad, which made a splash at the 2009 Universal Cheerleaders Association international competition in Orlando, Florida. 
Like a stereotypical cheerleader, it's an attractive film full of enthusiasm, but is not intellectually deep. Heady topics relevant to the story are touched upon but not really explored. Is cheerleading a real sport or a form of performance? Is there a difference? What is it like for male and female athletes to compete on one team together, especially in a country that considers itself conservative with regard to relations between unmarried men and women? What does it say about globalization that such an American activity has caught hold so firmly among young people half a world away? These questions may be raised but not much progress is made toward helping the audience come closer to answers to them. That's okay. Cassady-Doiron does a good job of making an engaging entertainment out of his material, taking a more emotional than intellectual route to resonance and depth by spending time interviewing the Bangkok cheerleaders about their own dreams, life histories and personal struggles trying to stay focused on their training and development as athletes and teammates.
What most interests me about The Cheer Ambassadors is how it was constructed. The various aspect ratios, levels of resolution, and styles of camera movement suggest that many different cameras and cinematographers were used to capture footage in the film. Clearly some shots come directly from television broadcasts, while others appear to be handheld, consumer-grade (perhaps even cellphone) cameras. Yet the interviews and much of the training footage appears to be shot in HD by Cassady-Doiron himself. Though all the footage is edited together deftly to create a clear narrative, with the addition of some handsome animated sequences to fill certain gaps (the latter technique used by Caveh Zahedi among other seasoned documentarians), an attentive viewer may wonder if the director and his camera were even on hand for certain critical moments, including the Florida culmination. All documentaries are chronicles of history once they hit the screen of course, but might this one be, like Budrus or Grizzly Man, a film in which the director got involved in its making after the story was already over, and more a feat of collecting and editing pre-existing footage (while adding supplemental contextual material like the interviews), than a feat of embedded documenting, like in Restrepo or The White Diamond? If so, perhaps it also explains why my friend Adam Hartzell in his otherwise-positive review noticed that demonstration of the specific innovations the Thai team brought to international cheerleading felt missing from the film. And it makes the all-but-seamless construction of the film seem all the more impressive an achievement on the part of Cassady-Doiron and his editor Duangporn Pakavirojkul.
WHERE/WHEN: One last CAAMFest screening 8:30 tonight at the Kabuki.
WHY: If you've been watching too many slow-paced movies on grim subjects (as there are certainly some in the program, though not unworthwhile) at this weekend's CAAMFest, The Cheer Ambassadors might be just the right pick-me-up. Not that there aren't moments of darkness in the film, but it certainly maintains an appropriately cheery outlook for most of its running time. 
It's an extremely tenuous connection, but yesterday the latest issue of the Australian film journal Senses Of Cinema dropped, including my new article on a completely different film featuring an American-style performance/athletic activity imported to an Asian country: Carmen Comes Home, starring Hideko Takamine as a striptease dancer visiting her traditional Japanese village for the first time since her career change.
HOW: Digital screening of a digital production.

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