After taking a look into the first day of the ongoing #adidasunderground festivities here in the Shoreditch area of London, the second night played host to a special viewing of filmmaker Sam Blair’s celebrated, Personal Best. Having taken a look into the film’s trailer only a few days ago here, the special showcase welcomed a select few into the transformed 180-seat venue that only one night before had catered to an entirely different crowd with the inaugural night’s Rollapaluza.
Centered around the training and story of some of Britain’s Olympic hopefuls, the film captures an element that is perhaps too often underexposed once the four-year Summer Olympics roll around and the worldwide television coverage cues up: hard work. Following the athletes through the various emotion roller coasters and daily training regimens, Personal Best brings to light the humbling reality of the life of Olympic sprinter hopefuls in the years leading up to what they hope is their 10 seconds of fame.
Perhaps a reflection of his own investment in the project, Personal Best began as a school project for Blair during his time at the National Film and Television School in London. With a strong affinity for documentary filmmaking, Blair was tapped by adidas to extend what began as a 17-minute school project, into a full-length feature — his first feature film. Be it the relatability of Blair to the athletes in his film on a level that only those who have fully dedicated themselves to their passion can understand, or his keen ability to become a fly on the wall in some of life’s most emotional moments, Personal Best effectively brings a degree of humanity and honesty to one of the Olympics most celebrated sports.
We had a chance to sit down shortly following the film’s conclusion with director Sam Blair to get some insight into the nearly 5-year-long project and hear his thoughts on London 2012, filmmaking and what he has in store for the future. Read the interview below and see the entire image gallery from the night of the event on our Facebook page here. Personal Best is now available to screen worldwide, via the player on the website here.
Can you tell us a bit about your story, how you got into filmmaking and how Personal Best developed?
Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. I went to the National Film and Television school here in London, and I think that it was at some point then that I realized I liked documentaries. I always wanted to do films, but I never thought I could write. So I realized that documentaries, observing life, and the way it allows you to feel close to people was something incredible. As soon as I picked up a camera, the first thing I did was I filmed my grandparents in a seven-minute film and that is actually what got me into the National Film and Television School. That’s when I started really taking it seriously.
This film, Personal Best, started as my graduation film for school. It was a 17-minute short film. It went out to festivals around Europe and it did okay at first. Then it got into the hands of Mike Chetcuti at adidas about four years ago. And immediately he really liked it. So he and I had a meeting and he was already thinking ahead to London 2012 and the Olympic Games. It seemed to align with what adidas was interested in being involved in. So in between, there was a long process of just waiting for the right timing and as 2012 came closer, we started looking for adidas to get involved further. And this was my first feature film, so it represents a big step forward for me.
What was it that originally prompted the film’s theme surrounding British sprinters?
Well, this wasn’t necessarily coming from a “fan” point-of-view. Because I realized that I wanted to do a film about a sport. I love how it allows you to look at these extremes of human experiences — the highs and lows, the pain and ecstasy, and all these big ups and downs. I realized that I wanted to do an individual sport and I felt that sprinting was one of the most focused of all the athletic sports and it’s the one that people get most hyped up about. In the Olympics, a big moment is the 100m final. It’s a very compressed, really intense feat to run at that level. And that intensity is what fascinated me.
Watching the film, one of the most notable things is the intensity of emotion that is showcased. How was it working with athletes and how were you able to capture such an emotionally honest glimpse?
The thing about athletes is that they go through such heavy emotions on a day-to-day basis. The first time that I ever went to watch them train, I thought to myself, “I have to film this.” An average day for them involves a lot of pain, a lot of doubt as well as feelings of accomplishment and everything in between – that’s just a day-to-day reality for them. And with this film, it occurred within a time span of five years, so I really got to know these guys. The worst thing for me as a filmmaker is when people are reacting to the camera. That’s the thing I try to avoid — the goal is to almost become an invisible part of the setting. There’s a conversation in the film in which Omardo, one of the athletes is talking to his mom, and it’s so natural. I love that. And if you think about it, we’re there just two feet away from them, but I think that is magic when it happens that naturally and you can feel like you’re a visitor within people’s lives and they’re just letting you witness these very personal thing. It’s a very precious thing.
As the athletes were going through these emotional highs and lows, did you feel yourself experiencing these same emotions yourself?
Absolutely. When we were at the finale of this film and we were at these big championships with thousands of people watching and many more on television tuning in, it is an incredibly tense moment already; but when you know each one personally — wow. As the gun goes up and the stadium goes quiet, I just can’t believe how focused they are. And I truly feel it now when I watch them and even watching athletics in general. I think athletics is still one of the most human sports. There’s no big money in it unless you’re at the top. It’s a very personal battle. You know when someone wins and it’s a very personal thing.
What else are you working on now and is there any other sports you’ve got your eye on?
We’re thinking about football. I mean, football is the sport that I grew up playing and loving. I’d love to do something with football. At the moment, we’re also considering a music film. I can’t say too much about it, but it has a whole lot to do with British culture. At the moment, this film has been taking up much of my life. Now, I’m beginning to come out of this film and focus on future things. It takes years to make a film.
I can imagine you’ve been incredibly busy these days. Have you had any time to attend any of the games here in London?
I haven’t yet, but I’m going this weekend to the stadium and I’ll be there for the women’s 100m final. It’s going to be amazing.
Have you been to any other cities in the past for the Olympics?
No, I haven’t. What’s interesting is that there has actually been a good bit of negativity over here surrounding the Olympics. Given the financial crisis, I think many people thought that it was this big expensive thing and there was a lot of division about it. But I was actually really looking forward to the Olympics because I had seen it from the athletes point-of-view. I knew that there was something pure about the Olympics. And I’m from London, so I’m very proud of it. It is the first time I will be going to the Olympics games and I think it’s going to be an amazing experience. Plus, being from the city, I have a sense of pride in it.
Despite the negative sentiments and conflict leading up to the opening ceremony, do you feel as if things have changed now and people are feeling more united?
Yeah, since the opening ceremony things changed. It’s very rare that people feel united about something. It happens sometimes with the football team because we can all unite around the fact that the team is terrible! (laughs) But, in general, British people can be very critical and cynical, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that much positivity that I felt during the opening ceremony. I think that London needed some good news. There’s been a lot of bad news lately.
People need to celebrate. They need to release emotion. When you can do that and you can feel others doing that at the same time, it’s a very positive thing. Sure, not all of it is good, but I think the emotion of it is still very positive and pure.