Recognizing and embracing the spiritual significance of long honored cultural traditions is one of the most powerful attributes of maintaining close family and societal bonds. The gripping and emotional new documentary, ‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation,’ compellingly showcases how lacrosse has long been one of the defining aspects of the culture of the Iroquois, a historically powerful northeast Native American confederacy.
The Iroquois consider lacrosse to be their spirit game, as it has roots in their cultural tradition, and is believed to have been developed among indigenous peoples in North America. Since the Iroquois also view themselves a sovereign nation, they have fought for many years to be recognized as such by the Federation of International Lacrosse.
‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’ was directed by Peter Baxter and Peter Spirer, the latter of who also served as a producer. The documentary is opening in theaters today, and will also be distributed on VOD, Amazon and iTunes on June 20 by XLrator Media.
‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’ showcases how lacrosse originated with the Iroquois, who call the sport their medicine game, and how it has become the lifeblood of their Nation. The Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team is not only among the world’s best sports organizations, but the players are also ambassadors for their Nation’s sovereignty and recognition. In 2015, the Iroquois hosted the World Championships at Onondaga in the Iroquois area of upstate New York, which marked the first time the games were ever held on Native soil. During the tournament, history, politics and culture all collided on the playing field before the eyes of the world.
Spirer and Baxter generously took the time recently to talk about directing ‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how after Spirer previously worked with one of the documentary’s executive producers, Gayle Anne Kelley, on another movie, she introduced them to Chief Oren Lyons. As one of the elders of the Iroquois Nation, Chief Lyons was interested in having a documentary made that chronicles how the Iroquois created the game of lacrosse.
The conversation began with Spirer sharing why he and Baxter decided to co-direct ‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’ together, particularly the reasoning why they felt it was vital to show the importance of lacrosse to the Iroquois. “I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I had worked on a film about 20 years ago called ‘The Walk,’ and it went to Sundance. (While I was at the festival,) I met a bunch of well-known Native people who are in the world” of lacrosse.
“I also produced another movie with Gayle Anne Kelley, who’s our executive producer on this film. Many years (after we first worked together), she came out to Los Angeles, and she brought with her her good friend, Chief Oren Lyons. He’s one of the elders of the Iroquois Nation,” the helmer further noted. “We talked about doing a project together.
“As we were developing another project together, we came across the incredible story of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Team. Chief Lyons had basically been the one who created the team and the concept of it playing internationally. He wanted to do that, in order to show the world that the Iroquois, who are also known as the Haudenosaunee, created the game. We wanted to show the beauty of the game,” Spirer explained.
Chief Lyons, who’s an advocate of indigenous rights, also “wanted to create more awareness about the Iroquois being a sovereign nation. He wanted to show that they travel together as a nation with their indigenous passports to other countries. So the other countries have to grapple with the idea of whether they’re really a nation. So (the team) has brought a tremendous awareness to who they are,” Spirer also revealed.
The director added that he began working with Baxter after the latter “made a wonderful film about football, called ‘Wild in the Street.’ It’s a fantastic film, and I love it.” Spirer also revealed that he realized ‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’ “was going to be a huge project, so I asked Peter if he would join me in developing, producing and directing this movie…We had a great working relationship. I love what he did with (‘Wild in the Street’), so I wanted to bring that energy and passion to what we were going to do on this film.”
Baxter then chimed in on what interested him in making a documentary about lacrosse with Spirer. “Like so many things in life, this film came about because of friendship. I’ve known Peter now for many years, and this was a great opportunity to work with him. I think it made sense to collaborate with Peter on this film. When I met with Chief Oren Lyons, I got the impression, as ironic as it is, that a lot of the themes about family, tradition and culture that were in (‘Wild in the Street’) were the same things that he spoke about with Peter. So I began very interested in that,” Baxter shared.
The helmer also noted that “As Peter said, this became a very large production, and I enjoy large-scale projects. So I felt that we could collaborate together on the making of this documentary. I think one of the things that brought us together on this project, and why it was so successful, was that we both always put our subjects and their stories ahead of anything else that we may be thinking about independently.”
In addition to Chief Lyons and members of the Iroquois nation, ‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’ also features the Thompson Brothers, Jim Brown, Bill Belichick and Al Gore. Spirer then discussed how he and Baxter decided who they would feature in the documentary, and what they would ask the subjects about their experiences in the Iroquois hosting the 2015 World Championships. “We identified that we wanted to cover the games. So we thought that naturally, we would have to interview the players and the coaches. We also decided to film in Denver, and also interview those coaches and players,” the director disclosed. “So we had a long list of people who we wanted to speak with.”
Spirer also shared that “the Iroquois nation put in funding and resources to help make this film. So they also had people who they wanted us to interview. So the good news was that we didn’t have any restrictions, as far as getting access. Having access when you’re making a documentary is vitally important. So we had tremendous access, which was great, considering how protective they can be over their story. But since this is an authorized documentary, the nation was very helpful in providing interviews.”
The filmmaker added that he and Baxter with so many people, they had to spend time carefully deciding who would appear in the final version of the movie. “Setting up the interviews was definitely a process, but it wasn’t overwhelming. We got what we needed, and people were very receptive” to the process of appearing in the documentary, Spirer further noted.
When it came time to put the final version of ‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation’ together, the helmers worked with editor Joel Rutkowski. Baxter then spoke about what the process of collaborating with Rutkowski was like as they created the final version of the film. “There was a lot of material that we had filmed for the documentary. That proved to be a very good problem to have. As Peter was saying, we were allowed into people’s homes, and given tremendous access, which allowed us to do a lot of interviews,” the director divulged. “We had decided on what subjects and themes that we wanted to focus on throughout the making of the documentary.”
Baxter added that in addition to the interviews, “We also had tremendous access to the games. So we spend a significant amount of time trying to film lacrosse in a way that it hadn’t been shot before. We wanted that aspect to be an integral part of our final edited film.”
The helmer also pointed out that while working on a documentary, “the editorial process can be quite daunting, due to all of the material we have, and all the goals we wanted to achieve. But we did have a specific narrative that we wanted to follow,” which helped narrow down the subjects the filmmakers would include in the final version of the movie. “We wanted to focus not only on the team’s battle to win the world championship, but also show the Iroquois’ desire to maintain their sovereign identity. We really wanted to show that in” ‘Spirit Game: Pride of a Nation.’
“These were complex elements that we were working with, but we think the documentary worked successfully. In the end, we came up with a story that we’re very proud of, much to the credit of our editor, Joel Rutkowski,” Baxter humbly declared.