Film Review: Debate Team @ DocFest

November 1st, 2008

sfdocDebate Team accelerates all notions of competition as it explores the bizarre subculture of competitive college debate. This documentary takes us into another universe that, while it takes place on my college campus, is otherwise absolutely foreign. Speaking at 360 words per minute, the debates are impossible to process and understand by anyone who does not have a well-trained ear to keep up.  In 2005, nearly 200 teams converged at San Francisco State to compete in the National Championship. The documentary follows four teams: Michigan State, Harvard, West Georgia, and Berkeley in their quest for the national title.


Exploring the potentially dangerous history of college debate teams that ponder questions of universal magnitude, the debaters find a stimulating allure in the frequent potential of planetary extinction or nuclear war in which most debates end.  As one debater puts it: “you can be talking about how going to the mall will end in universal war”.The students spend about 60-80 hours a week refining their technique, even when not in tournaments. Debaters confess that they enroll in classes that do not require attendance, so that they do not have to worry about showing up to class, instead focusing on the all-consuming realm of debate.  Although the primary debate technique is a blend of speed and endless information, there is a strain of debate that is largely about the very style of debate itself, debating not topics of extinction or global warming, but instead investigate the purpose of debate, which is used as a laboratory for activism instead of to practice the art of argumentation. While teams have varying styles and strengths, all seem to share a common sense of rivalry.Much of the contention between teams centers around Aaron Hardy (U of Michigan) who sacrifices sleep and showering to “cut cards”, the laborious method of collecting research.  He is infamous for his stench that signifies his poor hygiene, symptomatic of his unwavering efforts to win.  Aaron proclaims that he doesn’t “give a shit” who likes him.  Michael Klinger from Harvard is a naturally gifted debator, as opposed to Aaron who has to work at debate and is not as naturally talented.  Harvard has the successful, fun, and popular team, that Aaron refers to as the “Moby Dick of my debate”.  Hardy is such a force in the deate world, that Will Repko, Michigan University coach, refers to him as a “punk” and a “fucker”.  Aaron is further described as one “who comes off has being mean, has a singular focus, which is winning, which is off putting”, starkly opposed to the fun, more sociable Harvard team, led by Klinger.   The ruthless competition accelerates throughout the documentary, a glimpse into a shocking yet guiltily entertaining world of intellectual spats.Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of debate, is a popular metaphor that coaches use to train winners: you have to be able to kill a puppy.   This metaphor captures the ruthless, heartess attitude that debators stirve to achieve. This documentary is equally shocking and entertaining as it takes an unforgettable look at competition at its  most intellectual and yet most vicious state.

Sunday October 19 at 7:15 PM at Roxie Cinema

Tuesday October 21 at 7:15 PM at Roxie Cinema

Sunday November 2 at 9:30 PM at Shattuck Cinema

by Lily Saltzberg, FilmClick staff