In Ballplayer: Pelotero, someone compares grooming Dominican Republic athletes for Major League Baseball to growing produce: You plant the seeds, nurture them, then sell your bounty. “It’s just the way it is,” he says. The young players, who start training as early as age 10, have no problem with that: “The gringos may have invented baseball, but we’re just better at playing it,” the kid says, adding that American players are “lazy.” But the hopefuls from the impoverished country do work hard at their sport, with the ultimate goal of signing with the pros at age 16, their bonuses allowing their families better lives.
Ballplayer: Pelotero follows two such hopefuls, Jean Carlos and Miguel, in the months leading up to “Signing Day,” July 2. Sixteen-year-old Jean Carlos is good but 15-year-old Miguel is better: He’s constantly told that he’s the country’s top prospect, which could mean a multimillion-dollar signing bonus. Their trainers are like family, with the boys seeing them more often than they see their own parents. It’s particularly true in the case of Jean Carlos, who lost his dad at age 10 and considers his coach, Astin, his father. The trainers work on commission, only getting paid if their players do.
John Leguizamo unremarkably narrates the story of the two boys’ paths, which feels like the documentary offspring of last year’s Oscar-nominated Moneyball and 2008’s Sugar. Money, money, money—even more so than talent—is the focus here, with the players speculating (mostly in modest awe) about how much they’re rumored to be offered. But, as in Moneyball, there are teams with deep pockets and ones who can’t afford such prodigies, but try anyway.
Which leads to the ballplayers’ second-biggest issue: Proving their age. Like cars, the kids depreciate as they age, and teams don’t want to sign a 19-year-old when they think they’re getting someone at 16. Pittsburgh Pirates scout Rene Gayo kicks off an investigation into Miguel’s identity (yes, even the players’ names are questioned, after a scandal involving a Washington National) after claiming that the boy seems too “mature.” MLB’s investigation, which includes bloodwork, DNA tests, and even a bone scan, drags on past signing day, dramatically decreasing Miguel’s potential worth.
What exactly MLB needed to complete its investigation is a mystery, and at this point, Ballplayer quickly becomes shallow and confusing. Three directors are a case of too many cooks, with the film whipping back and forth between the two players’ storylines—which wouldn’t be such a problem if scenes of their handlers didn’t outnumber those of the boys themselves. Further muddling things, Jean Carlos ends up getting investigated, too, and on signing day he ends up receiving the exact offer that Miguel does from a different team. If this were fiction, you’d call bullshit.
With those similarities, the ballplayers’ paths essentially become one, and the film finally becomes an overwhelming mess. When the offers suddenly emerge, you don’t know why. Negotiations largely remain unfilmed, and MLB refused to be interviewed for the doc. There’s an accusation that reveals one character as something of a villain, which at least makes the proceedings interesting again, if only for the very end of the movie. But for too large a portion of Ballplayer’s third act, it seems the filmmakers went on strike.
5 Broken Cameras Directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
Even if you don’t quite understand the intricate politics behind the fight over the Israeli-Palestinian territories, you’ll have a visceral reaction to 5 Broken Cameras, a documentary that captures five years of protests via the amateur lenses of Palestinian Emad Burnat. (The film, however, was co-directed by Guy Davidi.) As the title implies, all of the footage—well, most of it, but I’ll get to that in a minute—was captured by five digital cameras from 2005 to 2010, though each was eventually broken amid violence and replaced.
The title isn’t exactly accurate, however, making the doc an odd specimen upon intimate inspection: At one point, Burnat says, “I never thought of making films.” Yet when a friend gives him his second camera, someone (presumably Davidi) is there to document the moment. Hmm, so if Burnat never had filmmaking, and in particular this idea, in mind, why capture this exchange? This isn’t This Is Not a Film, a recent documentary that was shot when its Iranian creator was explicitly forbidden from making films. Who cares if this doc was planned? It’s may be a small point, but it grates throughout.
Also infuriating is Burnat’s narration, which is flatter than a 2-by-4. He gets his first camera when his son Gibreel is born, and the boy’s growth—and understanding of the conflict—is as integral to the story as the border fight. Yet when Burnat says things such as, “When Gibreel pronounces his first words, it is a magical moment,” he may as well be describing drywall. Considering the dramatic events his voiceover usually accompanies, it’s another letdown.
But perhaps Burnat wanted the events to speak for themselves. He lives in the West Bank village of Bil’in, and Israelis are encroaching on its border, putting up physical boundaries of wood and chicken wire and dropping trailers onto the land. So Burnat, his brothers, friends Phil and Adeeb, and other villagers take to protesting on a weekly basis, vigorously confronting the Israeli soldiers guarding the point. There are grenades, gunfire, arrests, deaths. Every interaction, even peaceful crossings, is fraught with tension, and if Burnat accomplishes nothing else, he at least captures the danger and intimidation he and his fellow Palestinians live with every day.
It’s particularly wrenching as Gibreel grows older and is exposed to what is going on. His parents don’t shield him or his brothers, explaining to them that their people are being bullied and even taking them to protests to watch what happens. (It’s heartbreaking when Gibreel asks in his innocent curiosity about someone who was shot, “What did he do to them?”) It must be noted that these Palestinians embrace nonviolent—if rather in-your-face—protest, though Burnat admits that “clinging to nonviolent ideals isn’t easy when death is all around.” The situation’s politics aren’t explored beyond this-land-is-our-land, but like Gibreel, you won’t need a history lesson to sense the injustice.