Think of it sort as an updated take on "Hoop Dreams," except that its basketball-playing dreamers use wheelchairs. And they live in Afghanistan, not the Windy City.
Jess Markt, originally from the Portland, Ore. area, is the American whose story is at the center of "The League of Afghanistan," a new documentary film currently in development. In 2009, Markt, whose spinal cord was injured in a car accident at the age of 19 and relies on a wheelchair to get around, traveled to northwest Afghanistan to coach a wheelchair basketball team hoping to create a nationwide league.
When Aaron Cooley, a Los Angeles-based producer with Joel Schumacher's production company, caught wind of Markt's experience, he saw the seeds of a great film.
Today, the documentary, which aims to tell the story of Markt's efforts to bring basketball to disabled men and women through the struggling Mideast country, is in its early stages of filming. The project is being produced by Cooley in conjunction with the Chicago-based company The Kindling Group.
In order to help get their documentary off the ground, the filmmakers have released a trailer and crafted a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, which met its initial $20,000 fundraising goal, but has since set their sights higher, aiming to raise an additional $10,000 in order to cover the high development costs associated with filming a subject located thousands of miles away in the middle of a war zone.
The Huffington Post recently spoke with the film's two producers -- Alpert, of The Kindling Group, and Cooley -- about what inspired them to bring Markt's story to the screen.
Tell me how you guys all met and came together around pursuing this documentary project "The League of Afghanistan."
Aaron Cooley: I was introduced by a mutual friend to Jess Markt because we're both from Portland. The mutual friend sent me a series of 20 e-mails Jess had written from his first trip to Afghanistan and I called Jess up because I thought there might be a really cool movie here. I pictured it as a "Good Morning, Vietnam" kind of movie. Jess didn't feel comfortable moving forward with a fictional film yet because he felt like his story was just beginning and still had plans to go back there several times. I said, "OK, nice to meet you" and hung up.
(Scroll down to watch the film project's trailer.)
But this story just stuck with me and one morning I woke up and just said that I can't let this story go away and if he doesn't want to do a feature film, then I need to talk to him about doing a documentary. Jess was totally up for that and I was introduced to Michael Glowacki, our amazing director, by a mutual friend in Chicago. Michael is an amazing documentarian who has shot and edited a lot of projects, but hasn't directed one yet. I sent the story to Michael and he loved it. At one point, we realized we needed to bring on a real documentary producer, because I've never done a documentary before, and Michael recommended we sent it to Danny [Alpert] and the Kindling Group. As soon as I looked at their resume, I knew this was the perfect place for this. Danny saw the magic in the story that Michael and I saw and he came aboard to help us bring the project to where it is now.
The project focuses on Jess bringing wheelchair basketball to Afghanistan. Had either of you guys experienced wheelchair basketball before this project?
AC: The answer is no, for me. Never before this. But I'm obsessed with sports movies -- I go and see every one that comes out -- and that was a big reason why I was interested. What about you, Danny?
Danny Alpert: I had seen a wheelchair basketball game before -- there's a group of guys that play not far from my house. But I think what it is about for me with this story is that it is about the journey of the individual. The stories that I am interested in are character-driven documentaries about individuals who are representative of and help tease out and explore the broader themes of our own society, the things we struggle with on a day-to-day basis. I think this was one of those issues that we don't always want to deal with or look at, but can relate to.
From Jess' perspective, he is the outsider American who comes into a legitimately, from my perspective, hostile situation. For the local players, we're looking at how the introduction of this game can help rebuild the hope and the purpose that is in their own lives, which were shattered by their own injuries. Beyond that, in a much larger scale, we're looking at a country that was completely shattered from being at war for thirty-plus years, one after the other. Their own journey is about building this team and league together, but it's also about the much larger story of Afghanistan. This project has all the elements of a great story with great characters, great conflicts and great, important themes to explore.
From the point where you guys got started on the project through to today, where the project's Kickstarter campaign is just approaching completion, what have been some of the biggest challenges and "a ha" moments you've encountered?
DA: This is one of those projects where there's one huge challenge and one huge advantage one in the same: That this is taking place in Afghanistan. When I became involved in the project, Michael had already been there and shot the footage that made up the trailer. We all had no question that there was a great film waiting to be made here, but the big challenge is getting it made. We don't have enough material yet to go to broadcasters or other film funders to consider making a commitment to funding the project, but we needed to take it to the next stage and get more material to go out and make this project happen.
That's where the Kickstarter idea came in. We've had really good success at Kindling with our last campaign around a project called "@home," about homelessness and social media, so we thought this was the best way to go. I've been producing documentaries for 20 years and it's amazing. Kickstarter is an amazing tool for filmmakers to have at their disposal to be able to reach out to their peers and the larger community with an idea. The hardest money to raise for a documentary is the development funding. I think Kickstarter will make a huge difference in the number and quality of documentaries produced.
AC: Kickstarter is such an exciting way to introduce your project and get people emotionally invested in a movie that you're making. I think it's better than if some rich guy handed us a check: It's not just about the funding, but it's also about awareness and getting people excited to see this film in a year or two. Looking at this from the Hollywood perspective, people are really scared about movies set in Afghanistan and Iraq currently. "The Hurt Locker" won the Best Picture Oscar, but no one went to see it. But this project isn't a war movie, this is about people that our media is not introducing us to. This is a side of Afghanistan that people want to see. The most important thing that comes out of this project is showing the human side of this country at a time when our news media is showing us only the absolute worst side.
The war in Afghanistan is certainly a timely topic as you begin this project -- it is set to be the main agenda item for discussion at the upcoming NATO summit here in Chicago next month -- so how does it impact your project to know that this major world event in the background could change significantly by the time the film is released?
DA: This is not a story about The War, in capitol letters, but it's a story about the people who have worn the brunt of this. Everything will be very different within the year or two years that this film will take in terms of public perception. Now with the Obama administration targeting 2014 as a pullout date, the public attitudes around the conflict and about Afghanistan will go through many iterations yet.
AC: And Michael is going to have a really unique view of what it looks like from the inside of the country as we draw down and pull out. We foresee him going back to Afghanistan four or five times over the next year or two, so by his last trip, the U.S. could be totally gone. It won't be the CNN shots of tanks driving away, but it will be able how the people who've been left behind feel about all this.
What is the timeline going forward, beyond the Kickstarter, for this project? It's great to see that you guys were in the unique position of meeting your initial campaign fundraising goal, but were able to set a second fundraising goal to get more of the funding you'll actually need to raise.
DA: Michael is leaving for Afghanistan on the 8th of May, so we'll barely have the dollars in the bank from the campaign before he is on the plane and gone. He'll be there for about six weeks this time, traveling around the country but mainly staying in Kabul. He'll be doing a couple trips out of Kabul with Jess to five or six different cities to train 3-on-3 basketball teams while at the same time trying to put together infrastructure for a sustained basketball league that will go on when he's not there. We're hoping one of the teams will be a women's basketball team that will be involved in the training too.
The long-term vision and part of the ongoing story is the hope to create a league that leads to the creation of a national team and the participation of Afghanistan in the Paralympics and other international tournaments and games. The idea on this first trip is to identify the characters that we'll be following over the course of a year-plus as Michael will return multiple times. The exciting and nerve-racking part of the creation of an observational documentary is that we don't really know where this will go. The story will unfold in front of us. We're looking for a release probably right around or a little bit after the draw down that the Obama administration is talking about for 2014.
Are you confident you'll hit your new Kickstarter fundraising goal of $30,000? I have to say your odds are looking good at this point.
AC: I don't want to sound cocky, but I'm confident that we will because Michael's trailer is absolutely incredible. The first time I showed it to my wife, she cried, and when I saw that, I knew it was really powerful. People have kept giving even after we met our initial fundraising goal, and we've been very grateful that lots of people out there want to help out.
As of Saturday, the "League of Afghanistan" campaign has raised over $24,500 of their second fundraising goal of $30,000 -- with one week to go in the campaign. Click here to learn more about the film project and learn how to help turn it into a reality.
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