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  • Documenting the Rise and Fall of Oscar Pistorius


    10/01/20

    (ATR) Oscar Pistorius became known as the Blade Runner as he won gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics running with specially designed artificial limbs.

    Oscar Pistorius during a press conference (ATR)
    The South African double amputee sprinter used his platform to fight for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes. Pistorius qualified and competed in the 400 meters at the London Olympics. He did not medal but did win two more golds and a silver at the Paralympics that followed.

    Five months later, on Feb. 14, 2013, he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in his home. A trial that captivated much of the world followed in 2014. He was found guilty of culpable homicide but an appeal by prosecutors raised the verdict to murder. He is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence and is not eligible for parole until 2023.

    More than seven years after the tragedy, Daniel Gordon has directed The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. The four-part documentary premiered September 27, and closely investigates the life of Pistorius from the perspective of those who knew him best.

    Around the Rings was able to sit down with Gordon and discuss the documentary.

    ATR: Were you following the Pistorius case closely, and knew back then that you wanted to do something with it?

    Oscar Pistorius at his trial (Herman Verwey/Media24 - Pool)
    Gordon: I didn't really follow the case much at the time, not apart from the obvious you know being aware of what had happened. The sort of salacious nature of the recording kind of put me off the case, it didn’t entrap me in any way. I really came into the story about four years ago. I had just done a 30 for 30 called George Best: All by Himself. I was having a discussion with ESPN about potential next projects. I had already done three 30 for 30’s, and looking at a fourth. They had just done the OJ film and the beauty for someone like myself to look at OJ it was a brilliant film of course, but the fact that they were able to take the time to take a true deep dive into a story that everyone thought they knew. They were looking for something similar in length but also looking at maybe how can they look at a sports character that can also overlap the true crime element. It didn't take long for Oscar’s name to come up as a possible. I didn’t know the story well enough to say if it was good or not and I said just give me two weeks and I’ll do a quick research. I came back to them within three days and said yes I think this has everything. As soon as you start to research Oscar’s life and the layers within that story as well as the crime itself you kind of realize the potential.

    Oscar Pistorius at the Ostrava Golden Spike Meeting in Czech Republic. (ATR)
    ATR: Who is Oscar Pistorius to you?

    Gordon: I think that Oscar is [certainly in sports and in his life] one of the most polarizing figures I have ever looked into. You often associate polarization with politics, and obviously we have plenty of cases there. Oscar even when he was fighting just for the right to compete with able body athletes on an equal level he was prevented. The argument was polarizing. You either thought he was cheating and had an unfair advantage or you thought he should be allowed to compete. It was the same with the tragedy, you either believed he had an argument with her, and shot her in a rage. Or, they believed it was a genuine accident [and] he was being persecuted by the state. With Oscar there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. You either loved him or hated him. For him or against him.

    ATR: What approach did you use as a director, to shape the narrative of Pistorius? So the audience to decide how they want to view him?

    Gordon: My approach is always non judgmental. My mission was to try to interview as many people as I could across the story. So that you get as broad a story and every viewpoint. In the film there are 65 people interviewed. There are another 55 people who were interviewed that we did not use in the film for various reasons. And there’s probably the same again that we had meetings with, research chats whatever it might be to give me a fuller understanding of the story. My reasoning was not to sway you one way or another, but for the “You” as the audience to make your own mind up.
    Oscar Pistorius in May 2012 (ATR)

    ATR: Did you try to sit down with Oscar and interview him as well?

    Gordon: The conditions of his conviction and bail are somewhat complex. He’s not able to give me interviews, he’s aware of the project. He was supportive of the project, though he obviously had no input and influence. Both families the Steencamp and Pistorius families, were supportive of what I was trying to do. We know Oscar was supportive because a lot of people went to him to ask if it was ok to speak to me. And he was like “Yeah that’s fine.” The same really with the Steencamp family, I was very conscious to try and make sure they were ok with what I was doing.

    ATR: What do you think of Pistorius' contributions to the Paralympic movement?

    Gordon: I think it’s well documented that he’s possibly the greatest Paralympian ever. He was the face of the London 2012 Games, which was the biggest Paralympic Games to date. I think in terms of what he did, and in terms to the publicity that he brought to Paralympic athletics is unparalleled. I genuinely can't think of anyone that's had the same impact, and that was mainly driven by the fact that he crossed over into able bodied and compete in the Olympics. His times were not top level able bodied running times, I think people often think he was one of the fastest men on earth he wasn’t. But he was certainly one of the greatest runners of all time that's for sure.

    ATR: What is it about ESPN’s platform that makes you want to continue to make 30 for 30s?

    Gordon: I think with ESPN they are very filmmaker focused. There is no interference, you're allowed to make your film. When you do get the note there is always a discussion. Ultimately, they trust the filmmaker. I think they are very different to most broadcasters that I have worked with before. They are not prescriptive in any way, they let you get on with it. They trust you with what you have done before and what you're doing currently. I think that is the single biggest reason why I kept going back and made more films with them.
    Oscar Pistorius during London 2012 (Flickr)

    ATR: Why should viewers watch the documentary? What message--If any--did you want to project to audiences?

    Gordon: I don’t want to project any message; it's for the audience to take any messages they want. I mean that genuinely. I think for audiences they think they know the story and then they will find out they didn’t know the story. They will be on a rollercoaster from the very first moment until the last moment. They may change their mind or go back to where they started. They will certainly be on a journey.

    ATR: Why should Paralympians view the documentary?

    Gordon: I think Paralympians look to Oscar as an inspiration in terms of athletics for sure. All the ones we spoke to saw him as an inspiration, even the ones that Oscar was inspired by recognized the contribution he made. I think all people will come to the film and learn something. There’s a point in there where it's dedicated just for his right to compete on the track with able bodied athletes. I think Paralympians will recognize that inert bias they face in their daily life, never mind their daily sports life. I’m talking negative bias, and I think they will recognize that. It’s been seven and a half years since the tragedy and it's been one Paralympic Games since then. It was emptier for not having him there, that’s for sure in a sporting context.

    Written by Greer Wilson

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