Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dallas IFF 2013 Review: STACKER - Zed's Take

Directed by: Jeremi Mattern
Synopsis: STACKER takes you inside the fiercely competitive world of sport stacking: an international individual and team sport that involves stacking specialized plastic cups in specific sequences in as fastest time as possible

This ultra-fun documentary begins with the disclaimer: “No video in this film has been sped up”. It is an important fact to spell out because those unfamiliar to this fringe sport - yes, it is a sport – would have to assume there was some form of camera trickery on display.

STACKER colorfully captures the world of sport stacking (also known as speed stacking). So what is sport stacking? I would recommend you pause and YouTube “sport stacking” so you could fully comprehend it, but might get sucked into a You Tube vortex, and never finish reading this review. In laymen’s terms, “sport stacking” consists of stacking small cups into various combination sequences for speed and time. Combinations consist of the 3-3-3, the 3-6-3, and the granddaddy of them all – the Cycle. The simplest combination, the 3-3-3 (I use simple, loosely) consists of three sets of three cups each. The three sets must be stacked into a 3 cup pyramid, going from either left-to-right or right-to-left, and then down-stacked into their original positions in the same order as the up-stack. In case of a “fumble” (when a cups falls over), you must correct before continuing. Once you complete the stack, one must quickly divert their attention from the cups to a timer known as a StackMat. And by the way, you must hit the mat with both hands in order for your score to count and trying to trim a few seconds by using your wrist or forearms is not allowed.
(Edit: The current world record for the 3-3-3 is 1.530 seconds.)

The most mind-blowing aspect of the sport is its practitioners. Competition stackers range from age 4, all the way to 65. Throughout the documentary, we meet kids, families, and even teams from across the globe that love sport stacking with an authentic passion. This isn’t a hobby to them. Remember those crazy times in your youth when you took piano lessons or went to basketball practice. On average, you probably maxed out at 5 hours a week. Juxtapose that with William Polly, a 10 year old phenom stacker, who practices 25 hours a week! So how did such an odd activity get to this level? The Dr. James Naismith of stacking was Wayne Godinet, who called it “Karango Cup Stack”. The true pioneer however, was a P.E. teacher named Bob Fox who envisioned stacking as a true sport. He went on to create the WSSA (World Sport Stacking Association), and the company, Sport Stacks, which produces the regulation cups and the timing mechanism (StackMat). Small tournaments began in the late 90s, and slowly gained steam through the greatness of YouTube. Kids would film themselves stacking for time and sharing the results onscreen.  One of funniest parts of the documentary is a segment called “Stacking at Home” where it shows some of the wild celebrations posted on YouTube when a stacker gets a personal best.

As most films that involve sports, this one also culminates with the big game or tournament, in the case of STACKER, the 2011 WSSA Championships. Teams from Germany, Colombia, South Africa, among others traversed all the way to Dallas, at great expense, just to compete. At the post-screening Q&A, director Jeremi Mattern said that families may spend up to $16K in travel expenses for the tournament. In case you’re wondering what the grand prize is for WSSA glory, it’s a trophy worth about $150. For most of the stackers featured, it’s not about money or any semblance of fame. They all stumbled onto an activity that gave them enjoyment and provided immediate gratification for their practice. This was that rare organic sport, free of parent pressure. Another rarity of the sport, the biggest and oldest players are not the best. According to the WSSA, the dominant stackers are between the ages of 10-14! As 13 year old Dominic so elegantly puts it, “You don’t need steroids for stacking”.

I absolutely loved STACKER. It takes a relatively unknown sport and completely sucks you in. Moments when they slowed down (not sped up) the cameras during the competition events were so tense, the entire audience would let out a collective “sigh”. The kids featured were very comfortable in front of the camera (probably due to all the hours spent recording themselves on YouTube). And the parents were extremely supportive and some even participated in competition with their kids (Seeing 5 year-old Michael Haig double stack with his father Tim was sheer delight). The parents also see the value in the sport, and research backs them up like a university study that reveals stacking improves hand-eye coordination and reaction time by 30 percent. More importantly, they see their child who was once shy and taciturn, now transformed into a confident and proud, young adult.

After the screening, a lady in the audience commented that it was nice to finally see a documentary that wasn’t about the world ending. She meant no insult to social documentaries. She just wanted to voice her opinion on a section of the genre that has been underserved. STACKER reminded me of a fairly recent doc called “Make Believe”, about the world of child magicians. Documentaries often focus on negative subject matter we don’t want to know about, but should. We are fortunate there a few out there that choose to shine a light on the positive, because they also deserve our attention, maybe even more so.

STACKER is currently available on DVD at www.stackermovie.com

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