Giants of Africa basketball documentary flows with feeling and fast play

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Giants of Africa is a sports documentary all right, but it's a very human one that you won't forget. Why? The faces. The heartbreaking faces of the boys and young men from Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan and Rwanda will be seared into your memory.

The film concerns the special basketball camps set up by Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri, the first and only African-born manager of an NBA team. Giants of Africa, directed by Toronto's Hubert Davis, is launching at this year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Ujiri began the camps in his native Nigeria back in 2003 and last year, for the first time, they expanded to Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda. The film's title is taken from Ujiri's camp name and his comment about looking for good point guards from the continent -- the Giants of Africa.

"Everyone can be a giant in his own way," noted Ujiri early in the film, sitting in a cold, grey office high atop the steel sentinels of Toronto.

As of this year, 80 campers have attended high school or university in the U.S. while more than 100 have gone to university in Nigeria.

Although it is a sports doc, one can argue that it's really not about the sport. Essentially, Davis has weaved tales of personal histories and hopes, ending on an open note and not a fairytale finish. In each country, Davis chose one player to feature (including a host of assistant coaches), kids that he selected "very much [on] a gut thing" he told me through an email.

"Their spirit, their unique views of life -- I really enjoyed listening to them," explained Davis, who captured an Emmy for Hardwood (which also nabbed an Oscar nomination), exploring the life of his father Mel Davis of the Harlem Globetrotters. It's important to note in previous interviews, Davis has said his father's true passion was coaching kids.

"I found that so many documentaries coming out about Africa often show some of the worst things that are happening in the world... [this] is a life-affirming story about what the good people like Masai are doing in the world."

Sudanese refugee looms large

The players Davis highlights include a Sudanese refugee named Sodiq, whose pain is etched on his face. On the first day, he drags his lanky body as if heavy from the horrors he's experienced with his siblings -- escaping from Boko Haram and having to beg for food.

"We don't even have money to buy matches to cook food," reveals Sodiq, tears streaming down his weary face. "I want to help my family [and others]. They will not suffer as I have suffered in life."

Sodiq lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his aunt, three sisters and a brother.

"He started very withdrawn," noted Davis. "By the end of the camp, he was quite extroverted and joking with the other kids."

Sodiq's story is the strongest thread that unites the film -- an astounding artifact created with only one month of shooting in Toronto and then three weeks in Africa. Davis and his team (which includes the exceptional cinematography of Director of Photography Christopher Romeike) had to scramble to capture crucial scenes of exchanges, play, coaching and personal stories from the players. Besides the personal portraits, the basketball scenes are also remarkable.

Practically a Yang to Sodiq's Yin is Kenyan player Ryan whose grit and determination is exhibited the night before the first day of camp, when he stands outside the gates of the camp for three hours in order to be put on the roster. His energy and drive burst off the screen.

"Sometimes life is not fair but it doesn't mean you give up," points out Ryan, who is now head of his family after an altercation between his mother and dad.

Another player, Peter from Ghana, provides a magical interlude when he talks about not having even a basketball in his village to practice with. He practices his moves with an imaginary ball.

"Being a basketball player is about your heart," he philosophizes. "Even without a ball, I'm still a player."

'You can be a leader'

Davis said he was surprised by how hands-on Ujiri was at the camps and also wanted to include all the other coaches at the camps, who show a burning passion for what they are doing. Ujiri and the other coaches, it is emphasized, weren't good enough to be NBA players but instead, found their calling in the game in other ways.

This film draws you in because it really isn't about basketball. It's about "becoming men" as the sage, Oliver Johnson, of the whole enterprise, proclaims. Johnson, an American peace worker who arrived in Africa in the 1960s and stayed on to become one of the coaches of Nigeria's national basketball team, is a steady, strong presence throughout the documentary.

Johnson coached Ujiri as a teenager. Ujiri credits him with instilling a sense of community and responsibility.

This bears out in the speeches Ujiri gives to the players at the camps: "You can be a leader. Maybe of your country or a basketball team or your family."

Watching the progression of the players in the camp, you can sense the change. Every player featured talks about learning how to communicate and work in a team. Each individual learns what it means to help each other out.

As one of the younger campers declares, after he is not selected to be an all-star: "I am the smallest here but I see the other players, they are very, very good. I can be like that."

"If I don't play in the NBA, I want to be a doctor and save people's lives," reveals Sodiq.

Davis' documentary is lyrical and affecting. You will not go away thinking about basketball. Instead you leave with a deep emotional impression that is the face of Sodiq.

Visit the Giants of Africa organization website here.

Watch the official film trailer here.

Giants of Africa film at TIFF:

Sept. 11,  9:30 p.m. -- Scotiabank cinemas

Sept. 16, 12 and 6 p.m. -- Scotiabank and then Ryerson

Sept. 17, 6 p.m. -- Scotiabank

Sept. 18, 12:45 p.m. -- Scotiabank

If you are in Toronto for the festival, you might want to catch these other Canadian documentaries:

We Can't Make the Same Mistake Twice by Alanis Obomsawin

All Governments Lie: Truth Deception, and The Spirit of I.F. Stone by Fred Peabody

Black Code by Nicholas de Pencier

The Stairs by Hugh Gibson

Mostly Sunny by Dilip Mehta

June Chua is a Berlin-based journalist who regularly writes about the arts for

Photo credit: Giants of Africa film

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