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Interview: Director Poppy Stockell talks intense and inspiring film 'Scrum'

Scrum is director Poppy Stockell’s foray into the world of rugby. Centred on the Sydney Convicts, world champions at the international gay rugby tournament The Bingham Cup, the film puts dedicated focus on the players, their bodies, their hardships, and their efforts to win another championship.

We interviewed Stockell about Scrum, which has travelled around the world’s film festival circuit and is playing tonight at the Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival.

A film still from the documentary Scrum showing rugby players with mud all over their uniforms.

How did you come to make a movie about Australia’s first gay rugby squad, the Sydney Convicts?

Way back in 2006 I worked on a documentary about two teams competing in the Bingham Cup, the Sydney Convicts and the San Francisco Fog. I went to New York with the Convicts for their first ever Bingham Cup win. Fast-forward eight years and the Sydney Convicts won the right to host the 2014 Cup. Andrew ‘Fuzz’ Purchas asked me if I was interested in producing an hour of ‘highlights’ from the tournament. I jumped at the chance to work with the guys again but this time round I wanted to push myself as a filmmaker and storyteller. By roping in the best collaborators I could find, I wanted to move away from a straight up sports doc and instead create something visually and aurally immersive.

Was the way you linger on the players’ bodies intentional? The camera work is very sexual.

I certainly wasn’t shy in using the camera to explore masculinity emotionally and physically and I was conscious that as a female filmmaker directing and looking through the lens, I was intentionally subverting the ‘male gaze’. As the film explores the vulnerability of the players, I wanted to show them literally in their most vulnerable physical form, naked, free of mouth guards, sports body armour, under pants and helmets, all gone. Also these players are probably in the best physical form of their lives, they are training twice a week, playing at least once a week, I wanted to celebrate that dedication. I also knew who my primary audience are—gay men and of course they want to see some flesh.

Did you find there was a commonality among the men having come from homophobic and/or closeted backgrounds?

Definitely. It was shocking and sad to see a commonality between of men from completely different corners of the globe. Many still hadn’t fully come out in their home towns or countries. It goes to show that many of the struggles of being LGBTIQ are universal.

Despite mentioning him in the opening title cards, and despite the tournament’s name, none of the film’s subjects actually speak about Mark Bingham. Did they have anything to say about him during production that simply didn’t make it into the movie?

Alice Hoagland, Mark Bingham’s mother, attended the tournament and was filmed for the documentary, in interviews and interacting with the major characters in the film. I decided against going down that track because there are already two documentaries that I know of that have explored Mark’s story in depth. I feel that although the players never say anything about Mark in the film, his presence and legacy are omnipresent.

Were you interested in tackling subjects like homophobia in sport head on, or more so in simply allowing these issues to become part of the conversation naturally?

It was never my intention to tackle themes of homophobia in sport head on, it’s not really my style and besides, no one wants to be told what to think. Having said that, the Sydney Convict are the first gay rugby club in Australia so they are a bright beacon for men in Australia and all over the world who want to play rugby but have been excluded or bullied in other clubs. Each and every player has a story of how they came to be at the club, and most of those stories involve hurt, pain and suffering to varying degrees.

My hope is that the wider community sees this film and if they are someone who hasn’t had much access or exposure to the LGBTIQ community, then hopefully they come away a little more informed about our community than they were before watching. I also hope that everyone, including the LGBTIQ community come away knowing that ‘’sissies’’ can in fact play as hard and as tough on the paddock as any of the toughest blokey blokes.

Were you expecting the dynamic between some of the players (like the rivalry between Brennan and Aki?)

Not at all, that was one of those beautiful reveals and why I love documentaries so much. I didn’t even really know Aki and Brennan played in the same position when I started following them, that’s how rusty I am on the rules of rugby. It was a wonderful accident and quickly became the focus of the film.

How were the men at accepting a female filmmaker into their ranks? Do you think you would have been as accepted by the players of an NRL team?

The Sydney Convicts and the Bingham Cup is an amateur sporting league so the players, as much as they might wish, do not have multi million dollar contracts riding on their every move. So no, I don’t think the players of an NRL team would have been quite as accepting of me and my team with the stakes so high.

The real skill in making an observational documentary is making yourself invisible. You want people in the room to forget you’re there in the hope they behave as they would if there wasn’t a camera following their every move. It’s a hard thing to do but generally I think women are naturally better at this than men. We are taught from a young age to take up a little space as possible, basically the opposite of what men are taught. Oddly it’s handy skill for a documentary maker. Lastly it sounds kinda rough but I think men take women with a cameras less seriously than they take a man with a camera, this gives you a certain disarming power and freedom.

Many of the players are seen getting very emotional—do you think they have an expectation to be more reserved, or does being among a group of gay men make it more acceptable?

I think it’s less about sexuality and more about the culture and leadership of the club. The coach and leadership team in the Convict A team created an environment where the men could share their stories in an incredibly sacred, non judgemental and supportive space. For lots of the players, this was the first time they had shared their stories to the other players. It was an amazing honour to witness and record.


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