January 22, 2012
The Other Dream Team is an unbelievably inspiring story of freedom and liberation from repression told through the triumph of the Lithuanian basketball team, which toiled under the Soviet regime before their bronze medal victory as a sovereign nation in the 1992 Olympics.
Sports has always made for great documentaries, the drama inherent in the competition, the visual spectacle of world class athletes, and the wealth of footage and coverage devoted to sporting events are a gold mine for filmmakers.
The Other Dream Team is no exception. But with the added gravitas of the political upheaval of the Iron Curtain and the deeply emotional human story at its heart, this picture becomes a truly epic and powerful piece of cinema.
Filmmaker Marius Markevicius charts a 50-year odyssey of the small Baltic country of 3 million people from pre-war prosperity to annexation and poverty under the Soviets to their violent revolution in 1991. All the while we learn about the country’s mad obsession with basketball, which birthed superstars Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. The film charts their success in the Soviet league in the 80’s to their courtship by the NBA and all the political and cultural conflicts they encountered.
Interviews with Marciulionis, Sabonis and other players confirm all the preconceived notions of poverty behind the Iron Curtain. But the biggest tragedy is not the absence of bread or blue jeans, but their lack of freedom to express their culture, language and identity as Lithuanians. Even the seasoned journalist Jim Lampley tears up when recounting the pain of these players during this period.
The players’ stories are so rich that Markevicius doesn’t even get to the 1992 Olympics until the final act, which feels like a bonus track on a masterpiece album.
The coda to this story comes after the liberation of the country and the fall of Communism. But once we get embroiled in the drama of the Olympics it becomes a film within a film. The involvement of The Grateful Dead in funding the basketball team’s trip to the Olympics is zany enough to make up its own documentary. Same with the awesome sight of other marginalized peoples competing under new flags (e.g., South Africa and Estonia). We’re also treated to some astonishing footage of the US Dream Team demolishing opponents. But the dramatic climax to the picture comes in the form of a storybook matchup between the former Soviet Union and Lithuania, which is so emotional and moving it didn’t leave a dry eye in the house.
The Other Dream Team is so powerful it transcends its sport, instead serving as the representation for our instinctual desire for freedom.