CityArts Magazine Personal Gold Review:
Winning 'Personal Gold' at SIFF
Friday, May 15, 2015 | by TONY KAY
If you’re a sucker for an underdog story, Personal Gold (making its official world premiere at SIFF Cinema Uptown tomorrow) is a beauty. It’s the kind of documentary so rife with drama and involving characters, you’ll swear someone made it up.
The film chronicles the US Olympics Women’s Track Cycling Team as they fought for medal contention in the 2012 London Olympics, and the movie’s subtitle (you guessed it, An Underdog Story) couldn’t be more apropos. Caught amid the shrapnel of that year's Lance Armstrong doping scandal, the team trained and competed on literally no budget. Their Australian, British and French opponents, in contrast, went into the competition with tens of millions of dollars of training and technological muscle.
What follows is an eye-opening look at the hard financial realities faced by the vast majority of Olympic athletes as well as a comeback story of heroic proportions. It’s a solid and absorbing film debut, delivered by married filmmakers Tamara and Sky Christopherson with empathetic authority—Seattle native Tamara was an Olympic kayaker, and Sky an Olympic and world-record-holding cyclist.
The Christophersons chatted about their own challenges as filmmakers, and about the deep connections that put them squarely in the trenches alongside their subjects.
Congratulations on being accepted into SIFF. I’d imagine this must be pretty exciting for any filmmaker with local roots.
Tamara: It really is. I grew up in Seattle: Green Lake is where I learned kayaking, and I was really lucky to have a great support system growing up. [Sky and I] lived here for five years before moving to LA, so it’s great to be world-premiering at SIFF. There are a lot of people here who've followed the subjects [of the movie] for a really long time.
Sky’s use of modern technology to monitor his health and progress for his world-record bid was the catalyst for your connecting with the Women’s Cycling Team, wasn’t it?
Tamara: Originally, yeah, we’d only planned on being there [in Mallorca, Spain, where the Women’s Team trained] for a week.We thought we’d just show up, give them a few devices, plug them in, the data would go to the Cloud and we’d just get it, analyze it and be right back in the States. But what we saw was that, in the ten years since we had been Olympic athletes, nothing had changed. You watch the commercials on NBC and the athletes, especially in America, look like kings. And when you see most of the actual Olympic athletes—not the Michael Phelpses and the Kobes—it’s below poverty level most of the time. That turned on a switch in us. Something bigger than us was happening, and we couldn’t leave.
At what point did you decide to make a feature film out of this?
Sky: I think the pivotal point when we realized this was not just a niche track-cycling story but history unfolding, was when Lance Armstrong and his teammates were banned from London. We knew about it before the media did. The coaches had a conference call with the team, and they said that the whole men’s team was out, and there was so much scrambling, trying to figure out how we were gonna win a medal. We encouraged more interviews with the women at that point, because we knew this would lead to some kind of a story if the women won a medal.
The movie details a lot of the digital health technology that enabled the Women’s Track Cycling Team to get back on track. How did you balance the tech end with telling the human story at the center?
Sky: Well, as the producer, I wanted the movie to be all about the technology [laughs], and that’s where Tamara as the director—and as a woman—really ended up having a balancing effect. If I took on the director’s role, it would’ve ended up being a really boring movie with way too much self-quantified geeky tech stuff. But it’s so much more than that. It’s an underdog story, it’s about women’s empowerment, it’s about the role reversal of the husbands supporting the wives…there’s so much going on.
Has the movie played with any audiences previously?
Tamara: Well, like true Olympic athletes [laughs], we tested this movie. We practiced it about 38 times in the last few months in private screenings to see if it was working. We wanted to gauge if it was touching people, or inspiring them. People are often inspired right after each Olympics to take up an Olympic sport, or to improve their lives in some way, and we wanted the movie to have that same feel. At one screening, the CEO of AMC Theaters, who knows our co-producer professionally, turned to her after the movie and said, “I’ve never cried like this before,” and this guy’s not a crier [laughs]. That was interesting to me—that we could make something that moves people like that.
The movie also has a lot to say beyond its inspirational value, too.
Tamara: I think so. You don’t have to rely on an institution to provide you with something: Maybe you can create it for yourself. I think particularly now in the world, when doing more with less is a global issue that’s only going to continue, that message has to be out there in as many forms as possible.