A Short Film Series Gives Female Athletes the Star Treatment They Deserve
Soccer midfielder Megan Rapinoe in a still from the new series, What Makes Us.
Last night, the Providence Park stadium in Portland, Oregon was packed with the largest crowd ever to attend a National Women’s Soccer League game. At the sold-out game, over 21,144 people watched as the Seattle Reign took on the Portland Thorns. The turnout made one thing crystal clear: The often-repeated idea that there's not a large audience for women's sports is woefully out of touch.
When the teams walked out on the pitch last night, the stadium resonated with thunderous applause welcoming home several players who had just returned from winning the World Cup. One of those players, Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe, is the subject of new documentary short made by directing duo Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo. The sisters and filmmakers featured Rapinoe in What Makes Us, their series of short documentaries on female athletes for ESPNW. The series—which also profiles New York Flash player Sydney Leroux, Spainish midfielder Verónica "Vero" Boquete, ice hockey forward Hilary Knight, and surfer Carissa Moore—shines a light on the backstories of each player and showcases their epic talents. Several of the short films aired on ESPN during the World Cup and they’re also currently streaming online. I talked with the Mundo sisters about What Makes Us and how their work helps give world-class female athletes the media attention they deserve—but often don’t get.
Nadine, left, and Rena review footage with Spanish soccer star Vero.
SARAH MIRK: I’m wondering what your personal histories are: Is this like a dream job for you two, or is this a new thing in your life, making films about sports?
NADINE MUNDO: Well, we don’t have a background in sports really at all. We had the opportunity to pitch to ESPN last year on doing a film for their “Nine for IX” series. We did the film on Ronda Rousey, who’s the female MMA UFC champion. So we did that film, and it became the second-most viewed short film in ESPN history. It did really, really well. After the screening, it premiered at LA Film Festival, [ESPN] basically were like, “We love working with you guys, what other projects do you have?” In doing all of our research for the Ronda Rousey film, we just realized there were so many incredible stories about young female athletes who have been doing their sport for their whole lives and have come against so many odds, just because they are women in male-dominated sports. So then we did this series “What Makes Us” and they bought it. So, we’re not athletes, we’re storytellers and directors.
RENA MUNDO CROSHERE: We were really fascinated by these stories and these women who had really just struggled. We obviously love stories of underdogs, and they were so amazing because ultimately all these athletes were so triumphant and really persevered. We just felt like there were these untold stories. I mean, unfortunately, women pro-athletes don’t get the same level of coverage that men do, and we just felt like, “Wow.” Getting into these stories, they were phenomenal from a story standpoint so that’s what got us really excited about them.
Can you speak more to that? That’s something we’ve been covering a lot at Bitch, the lack of coverage of women’s sports on TV and in the media at large. How did that inform your thinking about making these films?
RENA: You know, it’s funny, because you hear that a lot, “Well, we don’t have women’s sports on TV because people don’t watch women’s sports.” And that’s really kind of the old mentality. It’s a misconception. Nadine and I are kind of prime examples: We’re not athletes, but when we delved in to the stories of these incredible women, we are their biggest fans. We watched every single game and we watched every single Rousey fight. We’re so invested, and to us that’s the key, hearing all of these backstories. You have to know who these people are to actually care about them and want to follow them along. So that was definitely a motivator for us and something that was enlightening for us when we moved in to the stories.
Does that stand true for you, too, Nadine?
NADINE: Yeah, I mean, I think for all of our films, we realized that they all have this similar theme and thread: the underdog. First of all, they start at such an early age, four or five years old, and they knew and said to their parents or grandparents, “I want to do that. I want to be a world champion.” Just having that vision and goal at such a young age is so incredible. Then everything that they went through—the arc that we kind of use in each film is the challenges that they faced because they were women either on all-boys’ teams, or weren’t allowed to play, or were bullied or kind of dismissed, but then having that tenacity, and grit, and that talent and skill to work hard and finally achieve whatever great moment that we cover in the film, and then kind of the resolution and the takeaway. For us, we didn’t want to tell their entire life story, it wasn’t a bio pic, but really a slice and a moment that they had all achieved.
One thing I like about these films is they don’t feel corny. A lot of coverage of women’s sports, when it does happen, can sort of lean on this idea of “Girl power!” and “She’s doing this and she’s a girl!” and I just really didn’t get that feeling from these films at all. It feels more like profiling an athlete, and this athlete is female. So I was wondering what were you thinking about in terms of framing the narrative and the role that gender played in that. Was there stuff you were trying to steer clear of that you’ve seen in other coverage of women’s sports or things that you really wanted to model?
RENA: Our approach as directors is really just to get to the heart of a story and to be unflinchingly honest and, in some level, speak to a greater truth by being super specific. We really just treated each athlete as their own character. Obviously, as story tellers you always need a little conflict, some adversity. That’s classic story telling: You can create empathy for a character by showing either adversity or struggle or weakness that they’ve experienced and then the audience kind of follows along on their journey and you feel so inspired when they triumph. That was really our main kind of approach. We treated them like characters, it didn’t matter if they were women or men, and the amazing thing about these women athletes is that they understand that they are an anomaly, they understand that they can be role models. And maybe when they were growing up, someone like Vero, she didn’t have any women role models, and she really takes her role very seriously and really wants to make sure that she can be a positive influence or role model for younger girls, and to let them know that it’s possible.
NADINE: I think also part of our thinking in crafting the films and how we shot them and edited them is that it's so rare to see female athletes glorified, like, “Wow, they are these heroes and celebrities.” You have the commercials of LeBron James and all these male athletes and we were really intentional about making these films where this woman is the hero of her own story. We really created the visual story and the emotional arc to have that be the main storyline. Everything from the locations that we shot, you know, we have Megan [Rapinoe] looking out over a stadium with the crowd and the announcement of her winning this incredible goal, stuff like that that really paints them in this larger-than-life kind of way, because what they’re doing is so incredible and such a feat and we want to make sure that tone really came across in all the films.
What was your audience here? Clearly you want everyone to watch these films, but they are on ESPNW, so were you thinking about the audience for these being sports fans? Or were you thinking about these films being for people who don’t know anything about any of these sports?
NADINE: We were definitely thinking for everyone. I would say their big moments kind of lead up to one arc, but we really wanted to focus on the emotional story of these women and the struggle. We wanted it to reach a large audience so people who know nothing about sports, like us, would be inspired by them.
RENA: Yeah. You know, we didn’t really have any hand in how the films were released, that’s all ESPN and ESPNW. I have to say that we were a little disappointed with the fact that the press didn’t really pick up on the stories and we felt like, you know if it was the men, if we did three stories on the men’s teams, I don’t know, we may have gotten a little more coverage. We definitely felt a little disappointed with the release. Everyone who’s seen them, we’ve gotten so many e-mails and tweets and it’s been girls, young, old, sports, non-sports, who are just so moved by them. And I was crying, reading such personal e-mails. So we know they’ve touched people, we have no idea how many people but we know they were powerful for women and girls—and men who have daughters. We’ve had so many dads who were like, “Oh, I want to share this with my daughter.” So that’s been super cool, but we were definitely a little disappointed in just the lack of press coverage for these.
It can be sad when you make something that’s really high quality and it doesn’t get the traction you want, and you’re like, “Everybody should watch these!” How did making these films make you two think differently about sports and sports media since you’re coming to this basically as outsiders?
RENA: Well one thing is that it kind of goes back to that there is really an audience for women’s sports and athletes, there’s a huge audience for it. It’s just a matter of having the opportunity for it to be shown. We had our screening last night, and it was just a tiny screening of 40 people, and yet everyone loved it. The people who saw it online or [saw] the one or two films that they showed once or twice on ESPN—it’s like if they were to just air these throughout the summer or at least a few times, the audience would eat it up. People love these and it is kind of sad that if they were the athletes on the men’s soccer team, or one of the top male surfers or top male hockey players, the distribution probably would have been different.
That’s really interesting. I think it would be great to talk about filming a couple of these specifically. Can you tell me about Megan Rapinoe’s story? Walk me through how that story came together and what you decided to focus on.
RENA: Well I think for all the athletes, especially the soccer athletes because they were all in these intense training camps for the World Cup and our time with them was really limited, we had to be very thoughtful before we even talked with them. We really had to go in knowing “these are the elements we need to tell her story.” Megan, her path and that goal in the 2011 World Cup is one of the most phenomenal sports moments ever, like male or female, she’s known for that. And yet there has never been really a proper film about that moment and so we were excited to tell that story.
NADINE: That moment put their team on the map in a huge way.
RENA: I think also our approach is we want to kind of go against the grain with how women are depicted and we want to, like Nadine was saying, give them this visual treatment. We had like three days with Megan in Seattle and so we just kind of came up with our concept of the film. But then we sat down and interviewed her and these unexpected things happened. That’s just part of the film making process: You can go in with the tightest most button-up treatment and you still need to be on your toes and aware that unexpected stuff is going to happen and sometimes that’s your best stuff. Megan, she’s so amazing because for a lot of the other characters, they had a lot of kind of darker conflicts and adversity when they were growing up and playing. Megan really didn’t have that and we were a little concerned. Like, she’s awesome but how is this going to work? Because a filmmaker still needs to have that, it’s just classic story telling. So then we met her and she is just so charismatic and so funny and so, like, the new guard. She is not the girl who is ashamed of who she is because she’s gay. and she’s not hiding it. She’s just like, “I want people to know, I’m happy with who I am.” I mean, it was so refreshing for us. Her film was really interesting because she didn’t really have that much darkness but it’s still so entertaining because of who she is.
Watch the What Makes Us profile of Megan Rapinoe: