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Park City — “Better Dead Than Red” — that was the stirring motto of the 1992 Lithuanian national basketball team who won the bronze in Barcelona. Amazingly, the team was financed by the Grateful Dead out of admiration for the country’s staunch resistance to a 1991 Soviet invasion.
To the team and to the entire tiny nation of Lithuania, the bronze was an even more meaningful medal than the gold won by the U.S. “Dream Team” (Magic, Jordan, Bird et al.). For the bronze, they beat Russia, which had brutally annexed them under Stalin in 1940.
Much more than a sports film, The Other Dream Team is a rousing document of how one oppressed country reclaimed its identity and won its freedom in large part through its basketball prowess. Commercially, this superbly crafted film has strong word-of-mouth potential as a select-site release; also, it could be a sought-after project for a number of cable outlets: the History Channel and ESPN, among others. Following its resounding audience approval at its world premiere at Sundance, The Other Dream Team will be a champion on the festival circuit.
This stirring film could win medals here at Sundance in the U.S. Documentary Competition. It’s an accomplishment well within the grasp of first-time director/honored producer Marius Markevicius, a Santa Monica-raised, Laker-loving Lithuanian-American who labored for more than three years to bring this passion project to the screen. It’s not unlikely that The Other Dream Team will win the Audience Award as well as the Grand Jury prize in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
Geographically caught between Nazi Germany and Russia, the tiny nation of Lithuania (population 3 million) was a victim in the brutal tug of war between the Nazis and the Communists. It went to the Soviets and was held virtually captive as a member state.
On the basketball court, star Lithuanian players were forced to play for the Soviets in the Olympics: Future NBA-ers Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis, with two other Lithuanians, composed four-fifths of the starting lineup of the team that won the gold in ’88. In essence, they were drafted to play for a nation they hated.
The film contains ample interview footage from the personable Sabonis, who expresses the disdain the Lithuanian players felt when forced to visit the tomb of Lenin. Indeed, Sabonis’ jocular commentary and geopolitical insights are a film highlight. Drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in 1986, he was not allowed by the Soviet Union to join the NBA until 1989, held hostage by the Soviet regime.
Mixing historical footage (including such Glasnost landmarks as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall), game footage and interviews with Lithuania’s star players, filmmaker Markevicius has creatively captured a powerful political event. Peppered with cogent commentary from an eclectic squad of newscasters/sports analysts (Bill Walton, Bob Costas, NBA head David Stern among them), Markevicius has conveyed the wondrous personal triumphs of the team that dignified the struggle of a proud nation. In this magical case, sports was the catalyst for a nation’s freedom and resurrection of pride.
He conveys how the NBA’s drafting of such Lithuanian stars as Sabonis and later Marciulionis, who played for the Golden State Warriors and won the admiration of Jerry Garcia and other members of the Grateful Dead, were significant salvos against the Soviet regime. Both men risked being sent to Siberia if they signed. Like chess champion Gary Kasparov, who thumbed his nose at the Soviet hierarchy, the acts of these brave players were cataclysmic personal shots against the totalitarian Communist regime.
Truly, one of the most glorious moments in Olympic history was the Lithuanian team standing on the podium to receive their bronze medal, decked out in Grateful Dead tie-dyed finery.
Medals to producers Markevicius and Jon Weinbach for their all-star assemblage of technical talent. It’s not often in a documentary that the music is a rousing complement to the narrative: Composer Dustin O’Halloran and music supervisor Marc Weinbach‘s sounds — from rhapsodic piano sonatas to blues to Iko Iko — eloquently impart the individual struggles and the national fortitude of this golden tale.
Section: U.S. Documentary Competition
Production companies: Sorrento Prods., Berliner 76 Ent
Cast: Bill Walton, Jim Lampley, Chris Mullin, Greg Speirs, Mickey Hart, Dan Majerle, Mitch Richmond, Arvydas Sabonis, David Stern, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, David Rennick, Jonas Valanciunas, Sarunas Marciulionis
Director: Marius Markevicius
Screenwriters: Marius Markevicius, Jon Weinbach
Producers: Marius Markevicius, Jon Weinbach
Director of photography: Jesse Feldman
Editor: Dan Marks
Music: Dustin O’Halloran
Music supervisor: Marc Weinbach
No rating, 87 minutes
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