The Sprinter Factory: Interview with Director Isaac Solotaroff
4th May 2019 by Will Stewart
These are the girls running as fast as they can to be Jamaica’s new sprint champions in a country obsessed with its athletes. This is the story of the Champs national youth athletics competition that could change their lives.
Okhalia, Alesha and Shellece have their sights set on being the next Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the adored sprinting champion famous across Jamaica. At their schools, St Jago, Edwin Allen and Wolmer’s High, there is a huge focus on nurturing the most talented girls and preparing them for the Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships – better known as the Champs, the tournament where stars are made. Amid pressure from their schools and parents, not to mention themselves, can the girls triumph at Champs 2017
We were lucky enough to catch up with Director Isaac Solotaroff to ask him a few questions about the film. If you’d like to see your film on MadeGood.tv, then please feel free to make a submission.
Will – Hi Isaac. How did you come about making Sprinter Factory?
Isaac – My inspiration to get into documentary filmmaking was the documentary Hoop Dreams, the film had a profound influence on me. I’ve always looked for the opportunity to use sports as a lens into a particular culture that it would be difficult to get access to. I did a film called Pelotero about six or seven years ago, which was kind of a Hoop Dreams type story about baseball but following two kids from the Dominican Republic, who have dreams of playing in the major leagues.
Obviously Jamaica has this disproportionate influence over the world of track and field, and sprinting specifically, which is a sport that every country in the world competes in. I’ve always had a fascination with Jamaica. I thought it would be really interesting to do a deep dive with a couple of high school sprinters in Jamaica. We were interested in the idea of focusing on girls rather than boys.
All these kids face extraordinary challenges because it’s so tough to get recognised as a top sprinter in Jamaica. It’s one of the few ways out of poverty for these kids but for the girls there are additional challenges. There are high rates of teen pregnancy in Jamaica and high school graduation rates are lower for girls than they are for boys.
Will – It’s been told a bit less, hasn’t it? The female sports person.
Isaac – Absolutely. As you said, the inclination is always to lead into the boys’ story. We thought that it would be interesting to go in the opposite direction.
Will – You expect a country to excel at a sport when it’s rich, and often that’s the case. But it’s precisely because Jamaica is poor that there is a such a high standard of sprinters coming out of it.
Isaac – There’s the colonial tradition, track and field is something that the British always excelled at. Jamaica is obviously very independent but also very tied to its history as a colonial country.
The champs event, which is kind of the climax of the show, has all of the top sprinters in Jamaica competing in front of 35,000 people. You don’t have a spectacle like that anywhere else in the world.
If Usain Bolt was an American, he probably would have become a professional football player. All of the top talent on the island is funnelled into track and field.
Will – But it’s only a very tiny number of people that make it.
Isaac – I think we build these narratives as people from the first world, whitewash the inequities. It’s a feel good story that’s coming out of a real place of desperation that’s largely been created by the historical forces of racism or colonisation.
We also wanted to get at the underbelly of the story, how these girls are ground up in their pursuit of a better life. And also the adults here have a lot riding on the performance of these high school kids.
Will – They’re quite ruthless, aren’t they? They’re like, “Well, she’s not good enough so I don’t care.”
Isaac – That’s right. Onto the next one.
You’re not necessarily rewarded for your compassion as a high school track coach, but you are rewarded for a girl who goes on to compete on the national team and possibly win an Olympic gold medal. It is ruthless, as you said, and I think the adults sort of set the tone here.
Will – Do you think overall it’s a good thing? There are so many hopes dashed.
Isaac – It’s obviously very mixed, I can’t say whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
We sort of fetishise this rags to riches narrative but it does come at an enormous expense of resources all being funnelled in one direction. Often at the expense of an education. Thinking more broadly, how do you improve the lives of a whole generation, and not just focus all the resources on a few privileged or athletically excellent few?I think it is just a statement of global inequality that this system exists.
Political agenda aside, the opportunity to tell the stories of these young girls and their families and their coaches, some of whom are more compassionate than others, Is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a world that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Will – There seems to be massive support. From watching your film I can tell there is real excitement on the island.
Isaac – Absolutely, it is a source of national pride. In the way that only sport can, it brings a culture together. America is so divided at this point, but on one night of the year a 100 million Americans come together to watch the Super Bowl. In the same way, packing Jamaica’s national stadium with 35,000 people for a high school track and field event is amazing. The atmosphere there is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. There’s no other part of the world where it’s replicated.
Will – Making the film must have been a lot of fun.
Isaac – It was a blast. We worked so hard, it was a labour of love. The Guardian was very generous but their budgets are not that big. We’re hoping to go back in a year or two and spend an entire season there to really get into even more depth with these characters.
Will – You mentioned Hoop Dreams, that was filmed over about 10 years. Do you want to do something like that?
Isaac: Yeah, I would love the opportunity. We shot Sprinter Factory over six days, spread out over probably eight days of production, over two trips.
It was so rich that we were just grinding from dawn to dusk every day and I would love the opportunity to have more time to explore the dynamics that we’re talking about earlier.
Will – Do you think you could build up the trust that’s necessary to have such a bare view of these people’s lives?
Isaac – Oh, yeah. They’re dying to be able to tell their story. It’s one of the nice things of shooting outside the United States or outside the first world is that people just don’t have the kind of callousness when it comes to the media. It’s very exciting for them. Maybe not for all the right reasons but we got total buy-in. Every school that we went to was incredibly accepting and welcoming and very excited to be able to tell their story to a larger audience.
Will – That’s really great. You’ve talked about the production a bit. guess it must be a small crew?
Isaac – Very small. We brought a DP, second camera slash AC, and a local sound guy. I mean, it was as bare bones. We had a couple local production assistants as well. My DP is phenomenal. His name is Gregg De Domenico. We shot it on the highest end documentary camera you can shoot on these days, an Alexa Mini.
He’s sort of figured out a configuration with an easy rig and the Alexa Mini and variable zoom lenses, that allows him to shoot verite all day. Even in the most trying of conditions, it was hot, it’s dry, we’re in the sun for hours at a time and he’s also a big guy but we shot hours and hours and hours. With these beautiful anamorphic lenses it has this wonderful cinematic quality but it’s still very authentic, which is really hard to pull off.
Will – Even though your team was small it still costs money, especially getting out to Jamaica from the States. Did some of the money come out of your own pocket in the end to get it made?
Isaac – We got money from The Guardian which was supplemented with funds from the Sundance Foundation.
Will – What’s the usual sort of thing that you’ll be making? Is this a typical example? You said you made one film before about the baseball players.
Isaac – I just spent eight months working on a six part series about a rapper named Meek Mill. He’s an A-list celebrity rapper who’s been in and out of prison for the last 12 years for a crime that he didn’t commit. He’s become the poster child of criminal justice reform in the United States in large part because he’s managed by Jay Z. He’s also aligned himself with very powerful billionaires who are just disgusted with what’s happened to him. Of course, the story is that there are millions of other Meek stories in the United States that no one has really paid attention to.
Meek is a celebrity and he’s under the thumb of the criminal justice system in the United States and has this exposure but also the backing of these very powerful men. He has become a sort of lightning rod for what’s wrong with the system.
Will – It sounds like an absolutely huge story. It sounds really fascinating.
Isaac – It’s huge. It’s a five episode series. I directed a number of the episodes and executive produced it and was the one that helped pitch the show to Amazon.
Will – Good stuff. When can we see that?
Isaac – It’ll be out this summer. The title of it is Free Meek.
Will – It seems like your intentions as a filmmaker are to highlight kind of people in disadvantaged situations. Why is that?
Isaac: I was a high school teacher in the inner city before I got into filmmaking. I grew up in New York City at a time when crime was at its peak and was very, very aware of racial and class disparities. My politics but also sort of my professional aspirations. These are the stories that always pull me in.
I have a very New York urban sensibility and so I’m always on the lookout for stories like the ones that I’ve been able to make these films about.
Will – Well, I’m glad someone is making these kind of stories. I think they need to be told. It’s important.
Isaac – I was definitely raised to understand that a lot was given to me and that a lot was expected from me in return. I have my 11 month old daughter, and I really want to impart that to her as well.
Will – Thanks for speaking to me Isaac. Can’t wait to see Free Meek.