REVIEW: Steelers (Glasgow Film Festival 2021)
As a result of the homophobia that still exists today, one of the sad realities that gay men often face is the questioning of whether or not any given space that they want to enter into is a safe one. This applies to travelling, the workplace, social settings and beyond and it’s a fact that new sports documentary Steelers addresses in its opening minutes. The documentary follows the titular sports team, The Kings Cross Steelers who, after they were founded in 1995, became the world’s first gay rugby team. Audiences get to watch the team as they attempt to win The Bingham Cup, a biennial world championship of gay and inclusive rugby. Which, despite being the world’s first gay rugby team, they have never won.
Steelers is written, directed and produced by Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, an Australian reporter and player from the team. He charts the Steelers progression through the tournament with footage from the matches they play, but also explores further aspects of club life by interviewing two fellow players and the team’s head coach. Through these interviews, Ashton-Atkinson provides audiences with heartfelt testimony on a range of issues, from mental health to misogyny. He offers his own personal experiences to the documentary as well, through his narration and the sharing of stories and photographs.
Ashton-Atkinson does well to make this an accessible film for all, including those who aren’t familiar with rugby. He talks viewers through the scenes of game-play with a straightforward and clear direction, meaning it’s effortlessly easy to follow. In addition to this, audiences will gain a brief insight into the history of the club and the world of gay rugby as a whole, thanks to his clear context and interesting stats he contributes to the film.
However, the film really excels, not in these moments of game-play or club history, but in the brave discussions from the interviewees and the more casual and natural instances Ashton-Atkinson captures of his teammates in-between games. The film really does touch on many excellent and worthy topics of discussion, but one of the best comes courtesy of one of the players, Drew who sheds light on the important conversation of stereotypes within the gay community. He carefully discredits any notions that to be a gay rugby player, you have to be a certain kind of gay man. He does this by sharing his experiences on the pitch, ensuring that he can be a formidable opponent whilst also letting viewers in on his off-pitch experiences, where he often takes to the stage as a flamboyant drag performer. This important discussion of queer stereotypes is handled excellently and applying it to the specific context of the world of gay sports gives it a further degree of interest.
The importance of delving into issues like this are never neglected in this documentary, handling an impressive amount for its short running time. Although the film also ensures that it makes time for more light-hearted moments and these are a delight to watch. Showcasing the queer happiness and laughter that comes as a result of these gay men being a part of this rugby team is a joy to witness. Furthermore, the sheer amount of gay men gathered together for this sporting event will be a real encouragement and reminder to those viewers from the same community that there are safe spaces for them and there’s hope for a rich and full life, no matter your sexuality.
The film isn’t without its flaws though, and some decisions do show Ashton-Atkinson’s inexperience. This is most prevalent in some of the musical choices and certain aspects of the narration. At times both of these parts of the film can feel clichéd and melodramatic, meaning they risk cheapening the powerful testimony of the interviewees and very real drama of the rugby pitch. Nonetheless, these choices never derail the documentary and they’re only small flaws in comparison to the successes that the film achieves, of which there are many.
Ultimately, Steelers is a celebration of gay sporting lives and it conveys this wonderfully. It serves as a good introduction into the world of gay rugby for newcomers and will interest those who are already familiar with it. Its emotional interview segments enhance the story of the Steelers and their efforts in the Bingham Cup, creating a well-balanced documentary that allows for an informative and entertaining snapshot into this fabulous world. Whilst it has to be said that some of the creative choices do veer into clichéd territory, they rarely take away from just how effective this film steeped in positivity and important queer conversation often is. Ashton-Atkinson has taken a personal story of finding where he belongs and transformed it into a collective narrative that applies to many. The end product is a joyous triumph that he and his teammates should be very proud of.