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Ask the Hard Questions


Several friends suggested I watch "Cheer," a Netflix-produced documentary series. It's a real-time portrayl of a cheerleading team from Navarro College, a small, publicly-funded, under-funded community college in Corsicana, Texas, county population 48,000, known best for its fruitcake and its 73% turnout for Donald Trump. It's an America many of us never experience, a picture-perfect town of upended devotion—religious and athletic—that conceals exploitation and cruelty.

Within minutes of the camera rolling in a bare-bones gymnasium, we hear one of the female "flyers" say that she's had five concussions. Despite this guileless confession from a young woman clearly eager to please her silent behind-the-camera interlocutor, and her hard-driving coach, there are no follow-up questions. In fact, there aren't any questions at all. And it is only once at the end of the six-part series that the viewer hears a reporter's voice. It seems to be an accident. Perhaps the footage was too valuable to cut.

There are many situations where cinema verité (fly-on-the-wall) film-making is useful. This series is not one of them. These still young, extreme athletes, many from troubled backgrounds, on scholarship, desperate for an education, require protection as they are filmed in the gymnasium, and in their personal lives. And though the strong, female coach, Monica Aldana, presents herself as a parental, caring force, her self-promotion pervades the series without respite. She is an emblem of the dark culture of American sports that exploits its talent and demands athletic prowess for the glory of the school, the team, and the final competition at Daytona. We watch breathless and expectant as the vulnerable athletes fall onto hard wooden floors, nearly break ribs, bruise muscles, damage their backs, sob and groan, cheer despite their pain, get into trouble, leave school, head for the hospital emergency room, return to practice. Navarro College only has a 21% graduation rate. That fact is never revealed; it requires explanation.

Does the series' director, Greg Whitely, have a point of view? Does he imagine that he's created an exposé, a raw record, and that we'll come away both admiring and disgusted, able to make our own decision? I found it interesting that he was a missionary for The Church of Latter Day Saints and had made a film about Mitt Romney. Is that relevant to his ominiscient style of film-making? Are the athlete's fates in the hands of the gods? In an interview with Mashable, an online magazine, Whitely said, "I tried as best I can to remain agnostic on different themes or issues, being generous with my subjects, while also documenting in cold detail who they are and what they are going through. And I trust that by doing that correctly, themes will just naturally emerge. They'll organically come out." Well, they do. But without a reporter's commentary and hard questions, the series has no ethical center.

We're in the midst of an election year, challenging beyond our imaginations. Credible reporters asking difficult questions has never been more important. I expect such rigor from my students, from myself, and from every working writer, reporter and documentary film-maker, no matter the social media hoopla and revenue value of an entertaining subject.

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