October 21, 2011
In the director's statement that comes packed along with the DVD screener of her new documentary "Elevate," director Anne Buford advances the high-minded purpose of making "a film about people who use sports as a tool for the betterment of others." In a telephone conversation with Ball Don't Lie on the day before the 81-minute film opened in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, she toned it down a bit.
"I got into this to make a story that was good for you, but not spinach," she said.
"Elevate" marks the directorial debut for Buford after a two-decade career in media that saw her rise from a junior assistant to legendary editor Anna Wintour all the way to Vogue magazine's communications director. Buford said she drew on her days working with Wintour on philanthropic fashion events like 7th on Sale and the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute Gala in making "Elevate."
"Anna was big on saying, 'People don't know that there are things that they should care about until you make it interesting for them to care about it,'" she said. "That was what I was looking for -- to turn people on to something that they might not necessarily get to, and to have a hook that made it interesting for them to get to it."
"Elevate," which tells the story of four Senegalese teens who hope to earn scholarships to play basketball and continue their education in America, hooks audiences early with the engaging personalities of its four stars. Assane, 16, stands 7-feet tall with a Magic Johnson smile that softens his domineering Kevin Garnett(notes) frame. Fellow 7-footer Aziz, 17, appears reserved off the court but uses his thick, muscular build to become a shot-blocking bully between the lines.
Dethie, 17, is a 6-9 forward who hopes to combine his classroom excellence with on-court prowess to achieve his "main objective ... to become a doctor." At just 6-3, Byago is the lone guard in the group, but the American coaches with whom he works think his combination of size, shooting and athleticism could make him an interesting point guard prospect.
Feelings of hope, opportunity, excitement and adventure permeate "Elevate." The tone is deliberate.
"I'm an optimistic person," Buford said. "I'm never going to be the person who looks at the downside."
As such, "Elevate" steers clear of some standard beats commonly seen in documentaries about both Africa and sports.
"When we were going through the festival process, people would say to me, 'There's no guns and violence. There's no guns. It's Africa, but there's no guns,'" Buford said. "Or they'd say, 'There's no LeBron James.'(notes) Well, I didn't set out to make a film that had guns or LeBron James, you know?'"
"Elevate" certainly doesn't suffer from the absence of brutality and star power. (Actually, sharp-eyed hoop heads will catch the likes of John Wall(notes), DeMarcus Cousins(notes) and other eventual college and pro luminaries during an international youth tournament in the film's second half.) Instead, its focus on the tireless work of the staff at SEEDS Academy, the "one-of-a-kind boarding school for basketball players" in Senegal that helps the four leads find their way to the U.S., and the perseverance shown by four young men dealing with epic change in all phases of their lives, is engrossing. Invigorating. Uplifting.
The inspiration to make a sports-themed first feature came, in part, from Anne's big brother, R.C. Buford, a basketball lifer who now serves as the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs. (He's also one of the film's producers, along with Spurs owner Peter Holt.) From their youth in Wichita, Kan., Anne said, basketball was a constant in their lives.
"When we were kids, R.C. always played sports, and so much of our lives revolved around him playing sports," said Anne Buford, who is eight years R.C.'s junior. "You know, when he was an assistant at Kansas, I was a student, and Alvin Gentry, who came from North Carolina, and coach [Larry] Brown, who came from Long Island, and R.C., and this menagerie of other guys, they just spoke this language, and it was so ... they were all so different. The ability of sports to really bring people together and connect them, I thought, was fascinating."
As Anne Buford tells it, R.C. planted the seeds of "Elevate" with one phone call.
"My brother called me, I think, in the fall of 2004 and said, 'The junior African national team is on a tour, and they're going to be coming to New York ... and I hopefully am going to be adopting or taking guardianship of a young man on that team named Alexis Wangmene from Cameroon. Would you go say hi?'" she said.
And so, armed with "six dozen Krispy Kreme donuts," she set off to the hotel where Alexis, now a senior on the University of Texas basketball team, and his teammates were staying.
"I met this group of amazing, bright-eyed, tall, very interesting kids from Cameroon, Senegal and Nigeria," she said. "I was so fascinated by them."
That Christmas, the Bufords gathered in Kansas to celebrate the holidays, "and on Dec. 24, Alexis had flown from Cameroon to Wichita," Anne said.
"He arrived with the lightest little coat," she remembered, a scene recreated in "Elevate" when Assane first flies into John F. Kennedy Airport and is greeted by the unforgiving wind of a New York winter. "He comes into this place that he's never been to, that he could never have imagined. ... I was just fascinated at how you come into a world where you don't speak the language, you don't know what's going on, and you're 16 years old."
Her interest piqued, Anne approached R.C. to learn more about where Alexis came from. Big brother put her in touch with SEEDS director Amadou Gallo Fall, and the ball started rolling.
Anne Buford describes Fall as "someone who is doing something on a micro level in his area to bring change."
"He's not trying to [change] the whole world; he's not trying to be grand," she said. "He's focusing on what he can do with the blessings that he's been given. He met a Peace Corps worker when he was playing basketball in Tunisia who said, 'You could go to America and get a basketball scholarship and get an education.' And he says, 'Where do I sign up?'"
Fall went on to graduate magna cum laude from the University of the District of Columbia and spend 12 years scouting in the Dallas Mavericks organization, working his way up to the role of director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs. Last year, Fall was tapped to head up the NBA's initiatives in Africa.
"Someone who does what [Amadou] does in the NBA -- only they would know that this is an opportunity that you could leverage," Anne Buford said. "People want tall basketball players. Tall basketball players are unusual. So why don't we try to make this work for everyone?"
Throughout "Elevate," Fall reiterates to his young charges, including the four the film follows, the importance of not only taking advantage of opportunities like studying in America, but also doing their part to create new openings for the next generation of SEEDS youth.
"There's an unwritten rule, which is about not forgetting where you come from," Fall says in the film. "You've got to have an interest in sending back the lift so others can take it up."
From a basketball perspective, the pipeline of African players coming to the U.S. to pursue big-league careers has produced a number of pros, but relatively speaking, it's been more a trickle than a steady stream.
Eight players born and raised in Africa appeared on NBA rosters last year: D.J. Mbenga(notes), Christian Eyenga(notes) and Serge Ibaka(notes), from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Desagana Diop(notes) and Hamady N'Diaye(notes), from Senegal; Luc Richard Mbah a Moute(notes), from Cameroon; Solomon Alabi(notes), from Nigeria; and Hasheem Thabeet(notes), from Tanzania. Whenever the next season starts, they'll be joined by highly touted Congolese rookie forward Bismack Biyombo(notes).
Several others share African heritage -- Luol Deng(notes) was born in the Sudan, though he grew up in England and is a naturalized Brit; Kelenna Azubuike(notes) was born in England to Nigerian parents; and Steve Nash(notes), Captain Canada, was born to an American mother and English father in South Africa. And over the years, about two-dozen other African-born players have made appearances in the league, including all-time greats like Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo(notes).
As the general manager of the Spurs, R.C. Buford has presided over an organization that has made an art form of finding international talent, turning late first-round and second-round draft picks into players like Manu Ginobili(notes), Tony Parker(notes), Luis Scola(notes), Leandro Barbosa(notes) and Tiago Splitter(notes). While philanthropic pursuits brought him to Africa, it would stand to reason that when an eye as sharp as his looks at a vast population of burgeoning athletic talents eager to learn the game, he sees an entire world of possibilities.
Citing the lockout, Buford declined to offer his perspective on the talent pool in Africa and how seriously the Spurs are looking at Africa as a viable pipeline in the years to come ("I can't answer anything about players"). He did, however, laud the approach to skill development, both on and off the court, taken by Fall and SEEDS, and note some potential lessons that can be implemented stateside.
"I think there are opportunities to analyze the developmental process of American sports that might otherwise be executed more efficiently elsewhere," he said. "I think that Amadou's approach to his group and his intentions for SEEDS are completely altruistic, and from a developmental standpoint, I think that's the purest opportunity for young people to succeed. His intentions aren't just necessarily of basketball development ... I think that's probably one of the opportunities for growth in the American sports developmental model, is the more holistic approach."
"Elevate" opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.