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On the Scene: Chairmen of the Bored?

July 28, 2005 By:
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Big wheels, keep on turnin’ — all in “Murderball,” an early front-runner in the Oscar race
Walk a mile in the shoes of these sports sensations? Try wheelchairs: Four filmmakers were able to wheel and whiz in the wild slam-bang world of their wheelchair-bound heroes instead, taking the rockiest ride of their lives.

It's all on screen in the killer drama "Murderball," a documentary that sports the stampede madness of the running of the bulls - if all the running were done with wheelies.

They coulda been contendahs in regularly scheduled sports, but accidents and life's at-times vicious vicissitudes left these athletes quadriplegics. So these men took to the courts in a different manner, often toppling each other and turning over their chairs while turning quad rugby - aka Murderball - into an international phenomenon.

The empathetic but unsympathetic film that examines their on and off-court exploits is now playing in the area.

And so much of the film's fulminating effect is due to an Elkins Park editor who's sliced and spliced the spice of this spin and turn sprint into what is inarguably an early 2006 Oscar contender.

Suddenly, Elkins Parks' Geoffrey Richman has become a player. A freelance editor for more than a decade and the award-winning director of photography/editor of "The Descent of Walter McFea" at the Hollywood.com Film Festival, Richman has risen to the top of his business with this film, whose 100-mile-an-hour rambunctious players slow down to the pace of a heartbeat when examining the romances and rituals of everyday life.

But it is the on-court clash of the disabled titans that elicits so many of the thrills and chills.

"Those action sequences took a while," concedes Richman of the richly rewarding and spellbinding game-action shots that spill into each other.

It's not like he had much experience with the sport. "Before this project, I had never heard of Murderball."

A Shot for B'nai B'rith
But the Akiba Hebrew Academy grad had heard of B'nai B'rith. While growing up in Elkins Park, "I had shot a video about the B'nai B'rith Fund for the Holocaust."

And the big picture came into clearer focus with another job - at the Big Picture Alliance, a Center City company for which Richman worked right out of New York University. "It was my first full-time job," he says of the firm that "teaches film to inner-city kids."

It taught this suburban sensation quite a lesson, too.

"I got to shoot, edit, direct with these kids," he recalls, saying that in some ways, he "learned even more there than at NYU."

He was working on TV reality shows when the real world of "Murderball" bounced into his life, as he joined the other Jewish filmmakers Dana Adam Shapiro, co-director/producer; Henry Alex Rubin, co-director/DP; and Jeffrey Mandel, producer, in offering audiences courtside wheelchair seats and a view of the physically grueling world that is the sport.

More than coincidence that all four filmmakers are Jewish?

"Hard to say," replies Richman. "But it's like when you're at a Jewish affair; look around and so many of those there are Jewish, too."

This was certainly an affair of the heart, with its heartstring-tugging take on the life of the good sports vying for victories and championships.

The "Rocky" of quad rugby?

"We were looking for a balance of the human factor and the sport," says Richman. "Its impact is not that of a sports film; it's a human film."

Certainly, the lead protagonists wouldn't have it any other way: Surly Mark Zupan zips through the flick as a Mad Max with a mission even as his softer emotional side is explored. Kicked off the American team and aiming to get retribution by upsetting his former teammates in the championship, Canadian coach Joe Soares soars and dive-bombs his ballplayers into action.

In all, says Richman, "you never feel sorry for any of them."

In fact, what Richman feels is a change of heart: "My view of people in wheelchairs has changed. I see people in a different way."

The view from Elkins Park is one of pride for friends and family even as Richman takes on his next project, about Sudanese refugees.

As for "Murderball," he learned that these rough-and-ready sportsmen on wheels were far from being chairmen of the bored - they were all active and ardent in their desires, and not just about the sports scores.

"They were quite open in talking about their sex lives," relays Richman.

Big wheels keep on turnin': Their images as at times snarly and supercilious super men and sports stars crashed and clashed with the more genteel image of quadriplegics projected by the late Christopher Reeves. But, as demonstrated onscreen, there's room for both images in the reel and real worlds.

And if he wondered himself how he would deal with the situations facing the film's protagonists, Richman knew that it would just be spinning wheels to put himself in their situation.

"There just so happened to be a wheelchair in the editing room all throughout the movie," he said.

"And while the temptation was there to sit in it, I just never did it."

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