The duo of Peter Spirer (left) and Peter Baxter (right) are filmmakers who find the sport of lacrosse and its Native American roots fascinating. They would go on to spend a few years in the Onondaga Nation and focus on the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team for their documentary Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation, coming to select theaters this Friday (May 26) from XLrator Media.
World Film Geek had the opportunity to talk with both Spirer and Baxter about their experiences on the film.
PS: Peter Spirer
PB: Peter Baxter
First of all, thank you for taking the time to talk about Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation.
PS/PB: Thank you so much! Our pleasure.
I have to admit, I didn’t know much about lacrosse and its roots, and this was a great film that really delved into not only the history of the sport but the evoking spirit of the Iroquois Nation in both the sport and history. What was your inspiration in making this documentary?
PS: I was actually working on another project about the Iroquois and we’re developing this very large kind of thing. And our writer came across this story and he mentioned that it might make for a good documentary. I’m a documentary filmmaker and naturally, I started talking to the upper guys at the Onondaga and it just seemed like a great story to tell and we decided to include some of the things we wanted in our bigger project in this lacrosse story.
And it was a challenge. If you’ve seen the film, we did this compelling thing about the Doctrine of Discovery (which Pope Alexander VI had declared North America grounds for religious freedom without the notion of Native Americans residing there). It’s a sports film and it has this subtext underneath. I just found it to be an amazing concept that Oren Lyons is this great wonderful leader of the Iroquois Nation and he has this vision, a clear awareness of the nation by using the game they created.
And then they have to travel to these other countries and have their own passports. This makes people wonder, “Who are these people?” “What are they doing here?” “Should we let them in?” They don’t have American passports or Canadian passports. They have their own passports and sometimes, they get rejected. There’s a lot of controversy behind that. “Why did we reject them?”
PB: Yes, you bring up lacrosse, and that’s one of the only sports that is far from a documentary being made about it. Lacrosse is a game and it’s a game that teaches a lot, which is why we wanted to pursue this film. Because of the way the Nationals play lacrosse and it’s simply out of this world. And as Peter brought up, there is also the sense of identity, very interesting, the subject of identity. Lacrosse is the identity of this sovereign nation who’ve had much taken away from them that they’ve never been defeated from an impossible situation.
They went from a population of 125,000 to the Nationals competing for the world championships against these colonial powers like USA and Canada. And would any documentary filmmaker not be interested in doing a film about that. So that was part of the pattern feature about making the film and it’s also about friendships within time. I didn’t know Chief Oren Lyons before we started making the film but after meeting him and making the film, he’s this really great guy. And he was able to open up about the Haudenosaunee and they became accepting of us.
And that was crucial in the making of this documentary, because you have to know your subjects when making a film like this and without Oren and our producer Gayle Anne Kelley, we wouldn’t have had that. So that’s really how the project came about.
How long did it take to make this film as it looks like it had the 2014 and 2015 games that the Nationals were involved in?
PB: We jumped into two world championships, the first in Denver for the FIL Championships. We actually didn’t have much time to prepare for the world championships. But before, we had a bit of proprietary threat to understand the lacrosse game until we get to the indoor games which took place on native soil a year later. So we’ve been in the production trenches for about two years and after that, we went into the editing field. And we had already begun that before we finished shooting the film. So from start to finish, it was about three and a half years, which for a documentary is not unusual. Most actually take longer than that, especially if they’re independently made.
And as Peter said, you can shoot a lot of footage, which is why we were co-directing the film, so we can manage it and work together with [film editors] Joel [Rutkowski] and Jay [Miracle] and for many reasons, when you’re crafting out a story, so much footage, the games, two world championships, and interviews, we carried out a lot of seasons and it’s pretty much “rock and roll” from there.
Were there any difficulties you endured while making the film, in terms of shooting or interviews?
PS: The biggest obstacle for us is the post-production of the film. It wasn’t really an issue with shooting with the exception of Team Canada, which someone told them, we don’t know who, not to answer the questions about the passports [Team Canada were the only nation not to have their passports stamped in the 2015 World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in the Onondaga Nation]. They were the only team not to have their passports stamped. Other than that issue, we had a great shoot, having access to everything thanks to Oren and Gayle. It took some time to earn their trust but once we established that trust, it was great. We had two full games and other games.
We had a tremendous amount of footage I’ve never worked on a film that had so much to work with. We had a sixteen-month editing window.
PB: I think one of the biggest issues was to introduce the Doctrine of Discovery because so few people know about this. It’s this religious doctrine, a murderous doctrine which was the source of genocide to hunters here and around the world. And this is a documentary about lacrosse and it’s interesting that it starts out as one type of film and then the story unfolds. And so we weaved in the progression, the battle for the world championship. The Nationals and the Haudenoshanee were fighting to maintain, to defend their sovereign nation. And of course, for them to be able to host the championships on their home soil, a massive location in their history.
The other thing that was a big challenge was to have the film represent an entirely different civilization. And that was difficult because we were so used to the colony where they were used to their own. And incredibly, after all of these years, we still know very little, generally speaking about the civilization that’s been here long before and their value to the rest of the world. And that’s something we really wanted to demonstrate. Just because you are a smaller in number, and even with a powerful number, does not mean you can diminish the value that civilization can give to the rest of the world. And that was a big struggle for us to wrap our heads around to convey to an audience which won’t know about these things. So hopefully, we’ve achieved that. We will find out. That editorial process was really a mounting time for us with all of the footage from the games to the interviews.
I will say this for me is not only a great film about the sport of lacrosse but the Iroquois Nation as a whole. Were you able to show the film to anyone involved in the film and if so, what was their reaction?
PS: Unfortunately, we haven’t had that opportunity for the folks of the film. But we do have a premiere event coming up this Wednesday (today, May 24), where they will be seeing this film for the first time. Well, wait that’s not entirely true. We had Chief Oren Lyons and I believe it was his son [Rex] and they enjoyed it. Other than the mission statement, he wasn’t involved in the editorial process. We pretty much had free reign over what we wanted to do. They appreciated who we were as filmmakers.
The film will be coming out in select theaters on May 26 then a VOD and iTunes release on June 20. I would recommend anyone who enjoys sports and/or history should watch this film. It was like giving me a major lesson. Once again, thank you for taking the time to talk about the film.
PS: Thank you so much.
PB: Thank you.
A special Thank You goes out to Katrina Wan PR and both Peter Spirer and Peter Baxter for making this interview possible.