Coach Bill Johnson is putting his team through its paces.
For the most part this is a basketball warm-up like any other. Johnson, clad in a black track suit, is directing his players with exaggerated hand gestures. The players, dressed in brilliant blue jerseys and baggy shorts, are doing lateral-movement and jumping drills designed to hammer home the fundamentals of defense.
But there’s one thing that makes this basketball practice unique — the setting. This isn’t inside some high school gymnasium in an American suburb. This is happening outdoors atop the Tibetan Plateau, where at 10,500 feet of elevation all that can be seen are the verdant green summer pastures stretching in all directions, the grey clouds fighting to keep the sun from peeking through the overcast, and the barest outline of the Himalaya mountains far in the distance.
These are some of the opening images from the documentary film “Ritoma.” The film, directed by Academy Award winner Ruby Yang, uses basketball as the vehicle to tell the story of the approximately 1,500 residents of the remote village of Ritoma in northeast Tibet, as the former nomads adjust to modernization while maintaining their culture.
And Johnson, an Everett native who traveled to Ritoma three years ago to become the village’s first basketball coach, is one of the principal characters.
“I’m just extremely thankful for our men’s and women’s basketball programs, just to have their story be told,” Johnson said following Sunday afternoon’s screening at the Historic Everett Theatre.
“Ritoma” was screened to a crowd of about 200, which included members of the Tibetan community in Seattle, as well as a handful of individuals who have been inspired to follow in Johnson’s footsteps and aid his basketball coaching in Ritoma — Johnson’s fellow Kamiak High School graduate Cecelia Black is one of them.
The film had its world premiere on April 8 in Hong Kong, Yang’s home. It made its North American debut at the BZN International Film Festival on June 9 in Bozeman, Montana. Sunday’s screening was the second showing in the U.S., and it’s scheduled for another screening on Thursday in Boston. Then it will be shown at events and film festivals in Hong Kong through the rest of June.
Johnson has been at each screening, and he will travel back to Hong Kong for the upcoming showings, where he will be joined by his players to also conduct basketball clinics.
“It’s just a beautiful film,” Johnson said. “Ruby captured the environments and the scenery, and the music really added to everything.
“It was really wonderful seeing the reactions of everyone to the film and seeing that connection,” Johnson added. “Basketball is an equalizer. With all the stuff that’s going on in the world, with basketball it doesn’t matter what your political background is, or your religious beliefs, or where you came from, or how much money you make. On the basketball court you’re a basketball player, and that’s a real cool thing.”
Yang, who won the Oscar in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category in 2007 for “The Blood of Yingzhou District,” bears part of the responsibility for Johnson traveling to Ritoma in the first place. In 2012 she produced a short video for Norlha, a textiles company that built a workshop in Ritoma in 2007 to give former nomads, who had no schooling, a way of earning a living without having to relocate to China’s metropolises. The 11-minute video included a 15-second clip of basketball being played on the village’s makeshift outdoor court, and that clip helped launch Johnson on his quest to experience basketball in Tibet.
Yang returned to Ritoma for a visit in 2016, witnessed how the village changed in just four years, and encountered Johnson for the first time. Her interactions with Johnson spawned the idea for this documentary.
“I saw all these things were changing, then when I went to see Dechen (Yeshi, one of Norlha’s co-founders) the first thing I saw was this 6-foot-8 American emerging from the guest house and I was was like, ‘What is this guy doing?’” Yang said via Skype conversation from Hong Kong. “When we sat down and and he told me about the tournament going on in the region, I said I’d come back with a small crew and shoot the tournament, and hopefully there was a film in there.
“Bill’s really friendly and energetic, and it seems that nothing can stop him once he decides to do something.”
The film, shot over 12 days in the summer of 2016 and running about an hour, is based around an eight-team men’s basketball tournament hosted by Ritoma. Johnson, aided by team captain and poet Jampa Dhundup, spends the film getting his players prepared for the tournament, helping bring the court up to specifications, and coaching the team in its games, one of which is against a squad of Buddhist monks.
But the thread that runs throughout the entire film is the theme of the former nomads dealing with modernity. The community’s herders are shown banding together in an effort to combat rising temperatures that make summer grazing increasingly difficult. It shows Johnson starting a women’s team, with the female players finding their voices as their confidence grows. And it shows the community dealing with the concept of disability, as a young girl battles against spinal muscular atrophy. Black, who doesn’t appear in the film, is spearheading a wheelchair basketball program in Ritoma.
“What’s happening in Ritoma (with the Norlha workshop) is that a nomad can work in his own village, preserve the culture of being nomadic as well as Tibetan, and slowly transition into modernity,” Yang said. “I think basketball is a way to help them, because as a nomad they work alone, it’s very individual. But working in an organization you need teamwork, and I think basketball is a game that’s helped them with how to work with each other and watch out for each other.
“It’s actually better than I thought it would be,” Yang added about the movie. “I thought I’d just do a half-hour film, but it turned out to be 57 minutes. With that length it’s a little challenging to show at festivals, but we’re trying really hard and Bill has been amazing with the way he’s taken the lead in promotion.”
While Sunday’s screening of “Ritoma” was the only opportunity to view the movie locally, the plan is for the film to be available via streaming service once film festival season is complete.
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