By Kristy Puchko
The crunch of brooms and bones. The roar of the crowd. The occasional cry of an owl. These were the sounds of my first Quidditch World Cup. Held in a forgotten corner of Manhattan, it was an affair that boasted college and community teams, cavorting mascots, wand-waving Harry Potter cosplayers, and those who came to gawk, like me. Who were these people (grown adults!) running around with brooms between their thighs acting out a sport inspired by a childrens’ book series? I went in with a snarky smile, but that transformed into a broad, earnest grin when I saw these athletes in action. Soon, I was swarmed by this quirky sports’ enthusiasts, who stepped me through the rules (like how the brooms are an intended handicap and how the “snitch” is a mischievous player with no team loyalty) and warmly welcomed me into their happy, inclusive community.
There’s something instantly exhilarating about “Muggle quidditch,” mainly because it’s a sport that requires great athleticism and threatens great pain. It’s a cross between rugby and football in some senses, and yet it’s dismissed by many for being some sort of sub-sport, a dorky hobby ripe for ridicule. But to be a believer, all you need is to see quidditch in action. Or so I thought. Unfortunately, the new quidditch documentary Mudbloods does the sport no favors, preaching to the choir instead of offering an accessible portrait of a sport that’s currently fighting for validation along with its players.
Hobby docs are a favorite of mine as they can expose the uninitiated into eccentric but vibrant subcultures, be it gaming like King of Kong or mock rock stardom like Air Guitar Nation. A common thread in both of these critically heralded docs is that they begin with a healthy suspicion of the subject matter. They allow the audience to ask the question: why would anyone in their right mind spend so much time and energy playing Donkey Kong or pretending to play guitar? Your expected cynicism of this silly activity is initially accepted. By recognizing this perspective, each doc allows you an easy entry point. It’s up to the filmmaker from this point to show you the wonder and value of these activities. From there, we the audience can connect, empathize and understand. Watching docs like these allows for a vicarious journey, like I had with quidditch. I entered curious and critical, but I left well aware of its wonder and charms. Sadly, Mudbloods never gives us this chance, strangely assuming we’re already on board.
The film begins embedded with the players of the UCLA Quidditch team. It’s an uneventful start: a dorm room packed with the game’s bric-a-brac, a gawky college student explaining how, to him, “Mudblood” means a “Muggle” who has the power to do magic. Director Farzad Nikbakht is already demanding a certain amount of knowledge from the audience to be familiar enough with the slang of the Harry Potter world that inspired this sport. Perhaps that’s fair as it is a worldwide book series sensation and also a massively popular movie franchise. Still, quidditch as a real-life sport is considered weird by many, as the team itself will attest. But Nikbakht never gives voice to these critics. Instead, he chooses to accept from the start that quidditch is a sport and a worthwhile endeavor. Those who disagree won’t be heard from, instead being posited as bullies and “douchebags,” which could actually isolate or turn off viewers curious but confused by this doc’s topic.
Maybe Mudbloods could have afforded to ignore its doubters if it presented itself as a hardline sports documentary. But its focus is too scattered for that, including not only the UCLA Quidditch team’s battle to get to the World Cup but also the organizer’s struggles to pull off this big event. And there’s a random Harry Potter fanatic who doesn’t actually have an arc or play quidditch, but who loves to preach about the community of its fans. The film needs a narrower focus on quidditch’s most engaging elements, and Nikbakht could have achieved that more cleanly by building the tension of UCLA’s climb to the World Cup. And then, once there, revealing the wider world of the sport through introducing some other teams, instead of half-heartedly setting up long-running champs Middlebury College as the Goliath to UCLA’s David.
Perhaps most crucially missing from this muddled sports doc is crisp, engaging footage of the sport itself. Sure, there’s plenty of shots from the 2011 World Cup, but much of it is blurs of action, poorly lit or amateurishly captured. The film needs the kind of hi-res, high-speed footage that’s seen in slo-mo week after week on ESPN. This would allow the viewer to revel in the kind of “bludger” blows, glorious goals, catastrophic collisions and snitch snatches that first put me in awe of quidditch. Having been to the very event depicted, I am disappointed that its excitement and radiant joy doesn’t translate in its doc. And I’m not alone in feeling like Mudbloods is a missed opportunity.
From my first Quidditch World Cup, I called my younger brother Doug Puchko, who was a student at Pittsburgh University at the time. Staring at the Pitt Quidditch team warming up, I asked my track star/swim star/all-around athletic brother why he wasn’t there and playing on it. “Because it’s quidditch,” he laughed. But when he later saw this team practicing on campus, Doug was drawn in. “I talked with them, and the next practice they had, I showed up and tried out being ‘Seeker,’” he told me last week. “That night I left with a cut lip and bleeding eye brow from being thrown by the (person playing the) snitch, face first into the dirt.” In short, he was hooked. In 2011, Doug was Pitt’s seeker in the very championship captured in Mudbloods. When it came to the doc, he too was underwhelmed.
“Team-wise they nailed it, from unity to fundraising, and injuries, and gag awards and pouring in our own money to start with, “ he offered. But he feels Mudbloods does its subject a disservice by playing down the physical dangers inherent in this sport that is still in its infancy. For him — and for about half of his team — quidditch isn’t about Harry Potter. It’s about fun and the rush of athleticism. But when it came to explaining his new hobby to others, Doug learned the best introduction was through an injury, recalling how he used the cuts and scrapes quidditch had given his face as the source of a class assignment on public speaking. These battle scars made the sport feel “legit” to his peers. For Doug, starting the doc with a rough injury would have been a great way to kick off Mudbloods and prove from its first frames that this isn’t a game for the weak.
From there, Mudbloods could have introduced UCLA’s team and through them explored the unity that has proved such a draw to men and women alike (gender diversity on a team is actually a requirement, not that Mudbloods makes mention of this unique rule). As my brother puts it, “It’s a different kind of team unity when you not only need to work together on the pitch, but also off, when it comes to trying to validate your team as an official university sponsored club sport and explain to others what it is you do.” We both wish Mudbloods spent more time developing this element, even if it would have required visiting with other teams with similar struggles.
That team unity could have lured in skeptics of the sport. As might have another element sadly excluded from this doc’s presentation. At the 2011 World Cup, every field of play had a sports commentator or two weighing in on the game. But as quidditch is in its infancy and those well versed were being used as referees, these commentators were instead local comedians, many who had no idea how this sport works. Perhaps Nikbakht feared their goofy one-liners (“This is a sad day for baseball, ladies and gentleman!”) would be too distracting or would undermine his intention to show quidditch as a sport worthy of respect. But when I was there watching my brother the seeker tearing across the field after a sprinting snitch dressed head to toe in gold, the commentary was part of the whimsy and entertainment of the whole experience. Not to mention that it can be weirdly intimidating to walk onto a field peppered with people in full wizard regalia. In that environment, a comedic commentator wondering aloud which of these contenders is the equivalent of the evil Icelandic team from Mighty Ducks 2 makes you feel like there’s a place for you too amid this wild and weird world of fandom meets sport.
Because yes, quidditch is a violent sport, but it is a violent sport embraced by a nerd community who appreciates some silliness and whimsy. This is clear in the names of some teams (the Badassalisks of New York City), and in the warm-ups of others (chants of pop songs like war anthems) and in the wacky commentary of confused comedians (“That giant number seven took a break from high-fiving God to score some goals today!”). In the end, it’s a shame that in its earnestness to validate, Mudbloods misses out on the opportunity to make the wonders of its subject accessible to all.