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by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro
THINKFilm, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Aug 22nd 2006


Murderball is a documentary about the sport sometimes known as "quadriplegic rugby."  It focuses on the rivalry between the USA and Canada teams, making USA player Mark Zupan and Canadian coach Joe Soares, and this makes for great drama since they are both strong characters.  Soares used to play for the USA team, but when he could no longer play for his own country, he switched allegiance to Canada.  We see him with his family and with his players, and he often seems controlling, angry and obsessional.  The filmmakers, in their commentary, say they became quite close to him during the filming, and he must have trusted them to let them into his home.  Yet, at certain points in the film he seems to forget his family because he is so immersed in the game.   On the other hand, Zupan seems like a nice guy, and it is no surprise when we learn that he became the spokesman for Team USA.  We also get to know some of the other members of the team, their girlfriends, the stories of how they became disabled, how their friends and families reacted, and how they adjusted to their new lives.

The revelation of Murderball is that disabled young can be dynamic, aggressive, and sexual.  We see them crashing their specially-designed chairs into each other, making each other topple over.  The game scenes are filled with shouting and death metal music.  It is startling at first, especially because you wonder how people who have suffered major injuries would risk further broken limbs now.  But it soon makes sense, because it is all about reclaiming masculinity.  Many of the players were active in sports, and some of the young men in the documentary even became disabled through their dangerous competitive activities.  We see one young man, Keith, going through rehab and then return home to face a life vastly different from what he was previously used to, and we can see the dread on his face.  With quad rugby the players are heroes and supermen.  They are grateful for the chance that they got to play the sport. 

Shapiro and Rubin's film is remarkably emotional, without ever allowing viewers to feel sorry for the people with disabilities.  It shows the humanity of the players, and shows how people with disabilities can fit into the world fully, commanding respect and love.  The editing is production is really strong, and the use of music is inspired.  The extras on the DVD are plentiful but not very illuminating.  The two commentaries by the USA players and the filmmakers don't reveal much; the players just sound like a bunch of guys sitting around watching the movie, and they spend a lot of time talking about how drunk they get as often as they can.  The special episode of MTV's Jackass with Johnny Knoxville basically shows that young men with disabilities can be just as stupid as young men without disabilities.  The deleted scenes are quite interesting, but don't show anything surprising.  People who really liked the Murderball may find these extras worth watching, but others will probably want to skip them.

The documentary is part of an apparently growing trend for documentaries about disability to emphasize the normality of people who are different.  This last year, in the cable show Little People, Big World, the Roloff family is shown going through everyday life coping well with the challenges they face.  This must be a good thing, and should be welcomed.  But there may be some reasons for reservations too.  Most obviously, with the message that disabled people can lead normal lives, there's a concern that only those who can find ways to fully participate will get media attention.  Those whose physical or mental differences are so radical that they cannot find a way to make their own way independently in the world may become overlooked in this trend.  With Murderball, the message that disabled males can be real men too is an important one, but the film does no questioning of this masculinity that the players aim to demonstrate, and the inclusion of the Jackass show on the DVD, as well as the players' commentary, highlights the lack of critical stance towards what gets counted as normal.  Obviously, there are commercial reasons for this; if the filmmakers had tried to deconstruct masculinity and worry about the role of age, race, sexuality and class, they would have lost a great deal of dramatic effect.  Nevertheless, if a teacher wanted to use Murderball in a class on disability studies, those wider questions would need to be raised.







© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.