STEELERS.

Reviewed by GREG KING

Documentary

Director: Eammon Ashton Atkinson

The Steelers were the world’s first gay rugby team, formed in a pub in Kings Cross in London in 1995. At first they found that other rugby teams were reluctant to play against them. But now there are more than 80 gay rugby clubs around the world with over 2000 members. The bi-annual Bingham Cup is the World Cup equivalent for gay rugby teams.

In 2018 the games were held in Amsterdam. But as the Steelers prepared for the tournament, one of its members was sidelined due to concussion. But Australian born Eammon Ashton Atkinson, who had moved to the UK in 2016 to escape his depression, drew upon his background as a television broadcast journalist to document the team’s progress through the tournament. While ostensibly a film about a sporting team, this is not your typical underdog story as the film deals with more serious subject matter and themes such as sexuality, gender, masculinity.

Atkinson reveals his own painful coming out story and shares his personal battle with shame, relentless bullying, depression and suicidal thoughts, and shows how he found support, inclusion and acceptance as part of this gay sporting team. His story provides the emotional context for the film as it seems to be something of a universal and common experience.

During the film Atkinson focuses on three other members of the team and shares their stories and their love for the game, which gives the material a more intimate quality. American born Drew McDowell plays a fiercely competitive game of rugby, but off field he is also a flamboyant drag queen who goes by the name of Drewalicious, and has an extroverted personality. The reluctant Simon Jones is more sensitive and reflects on his own painful experiences when he came out as gay, and he speaks quite candidly about his emotional journey in coming to terms with his sexuality. And then there is the team’s inspirational head coach Nic Evans, a female who had to battle against the prevalent misogyny and ingrained sexism in this man’s world of sports. She talks passionately about how she got into the sport through her grandfather. For all of them their involvement in the inclusive environment of the Steelers rugby club was something of a salvation.

Steelers was shot over the three days of the Bingham Cup competition, but given the budgetary limitations and Atkinson’s relative inexperience as a feature film director there is probably not enough on field football action to attract a wider audience. This is something of a scrappy documentary that lacks deeper insight into how sports stars are defined by their masculinity and sexuality, which is why so many remain firmly in the closet. The film was also largely something of a riposte against Israel Folau for his homophobic comments.

And while the Steelers were ultimately denied a fairy tale finish at the Bingham Cup, this documentary is a poignant, uplifting, affirming and still entertaining film that delivers a positive, powerful and important message about acceptance, searching for a sense of belonging and happiness, and overcoming discrimination.

★★★

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