Bill Simmons’ Grantland Features is debuting its first full-length documentary this week and the film goes far beyond the U.S. borders and boundaries of a typical sports doc.
Ironically, the film wouldn’t even have been made if ESPN’s Simmons hadn’t spotted a random email to his pubic account from someone who said they represented NBA star Serge Ibaka.
“At first we thought it was a fake,” Grantland writer and editor David Jacoby told TheWrap. “Then when we we realized it was real and decided to do it, we had about 15 minutes to get ready to go to the Congo.”
Luckily director Adam Hootnick quickly jumped on board: “The first call was in May, and we were on a plane by the end of June.”
“Son of the Congo” follows the Oklahoma City Thunder player as he travels back to his war-stricken homeland to recount his childhood, inspire a generation of Congolese youth on the basketball courts and hang out with the daughter he didn’t even know he had until she was 5 years old.
Streaming on Grantland in five parts and then debuting on ESPN on April 17, the film shows the stark contrast between the glamour of the NBA and the deep roots Ibaka still has in the Central African nation.
“One thing we want to do is capture documentaries in real time. With Serge, we wanted to document his offseason as it happened,” Jacoby said of the doc that was filmed over nine days last July.
Born in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, as the third-youngest of 18 children, both of Ibaka’s parents played basketball, but when his mother died and his father was imprisoned during the war, he ended up homeless, sleeping in abandoned cars and playing hoops in no shoes.
Still torn apart by civil war and violent protests, the filmmakers experienced the region’s troubles firsthand as they traveled with the 25-year-old professional athlete.
“We didn’t want it to be a photo opportunity or a puff piece,” Hootnick told TheWrap, as the crew was enveloped in the “claustrophobia, the craziness, the tension” of the Congo. “People are really looking for a way out and any way you can help them.
“There was also a big language gap, so a lot of the time I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. On one occasion Ibaka was in a bar surrounded by men making demands of Ibaka and speaking in the native language of Lingala. “We knew we were in a crazy situation, but it wasn’t until afterwards, when we got the film translated, that I realized what was happening. If I’d known, I would have been more scared!”
From giving money to family members and helping at a school for the deaf, to bonding with his now 9-year-old daughter, Raine, who was born after he left for America and he didn’t even know existed until a few years ago, Ibaka is “comfortable that he is doing to everything he can, and if that’s not enough then he is at peace with it,” said Hootnick about the millionaire player who could have been in Brazil at the World Cup last summer but instead went back to the Congo.
Rather than getting to know the 6’10” power forward and researching an itinerary before they left for the trip, the filmmakers were thrust into it headfirst with him telling them “this is my life,” Hootnick said.
“Normally I like to know what happens next. What you are feeling when you are watching, is how we were feeling filming. Real time filmmaking is very risky and difficult because you never know what you are going to get,” he said, explaining that at first they envisioned it as a short, but they got so much amazing content that it was expanded into an hour-long feature.
“The most exciting things is that we have no idea what is happening next,” Jacoby said.
“Son of the Congo” was made in conjunction with the HUMBLE productions and is available on Grantland from March 23-27 and will premiere April 17 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.