Frisky Q&A: Director Farzad Sangari & Quidditch Player Ali Cottong From “Mudbloods”
We’ve all seen wizards playing quidditch on broomsticks in the “Harry Potter” films, but these days, quidditch is a very real sport on college campuses across the world. The new documentary “Mudbloods” explores the root of the sport’s growth from a fantasy on a book page to a real-life hobby with its own World Cup. In the film, we meet quidditch heroes like Alex Benepe, commissioner of the International Quidditch Association, Tom Marks, the lovable captain of the UCLA quidditch team, and Katie Aiani, a “Harry Potter” super fan. As viewers follow the UCLA team on their journey to the World Cup, we learn that quidditch is about so much more than athletics. Quidditch has created an earnest, inclusive community that encourages fans of all stripes to join in on the fun – the kind of people that we all wish we could be friends with. Whether you’re an epic “Harry Potter” fan or just love a good underdog story, you’ll fall in love with these big-hearted players. After the jump, my discussion with director Farzad Sangari and Ali Cottong, one of the UCLA quidditch players featured in the film.
The Frisky: Farzad, what inspired you to create “Mudbloods”? I loved watching it, the whole film is such a happy experience.
Farzad: Yeah, it’s kind of hard not to be happy hanging out with these people, so I’m glad. It sort of started as a small project. I saw quidditch being played and so I did a little short film on them, but it kind of grew into a bigger thing and I became more committed to it the more I got to meet the people behind the sport. I think it would be hard to make a feature documentary about quidditch unless you had really interesting and dynamic characters. Luckily for us, as you saw with the movie, not only Tom being so lovable and charming and a good leader, but the wizard rappers, Alex striving to turn this little thing into a national sport and obviously Katie — very dynamic as a character. Very passionate. In a way I think they all are, and they all sort of shared this thing. The more I got to know the people behind it, the community, and I don’t mean just the players but the organizers and the fans, then it really started to gain momentum for me as something that could sustain a feature film.
Ali, how did you get involved with quidditch?
Ali: I was at UCLA and it was my senior year, I was about to graduate and I’d always seen the quidditch kids practicing around campus and I was like “okay, I need to go do that before I graduate” so then I just went to practice and really loved it. I loved how you could tackle people and get kind of physical, so I just stuck with it.
Farzad, how did you choose UCLA specifically as the team to profile? Was it deliberate or more happenstance?
Farzad: I went to UCLA film school, so I knew them from that. That sort of helped that I was a Bruin initially, so I think that connection — I was very lucky that I happened to go to a film school where this group of awesome people were starting a quidditch team so in that regard, it was happenstance.
Were you a “Harry Potter” fan growing up? Would you call yourself one today?
Ali: Yeah, I was. I read all the books, a few of them multiple times and I really loved them.
Farzad: Uh, probably not. I watched the movies because I like movies but I didn’t read the books. I was a little bit past that generation, I was a little bit older than them.
Farzad, was it hard at first to convince the team to be filmed or were they game right away?
Farzad: Surprisingly, they were very open. I remember the first time I contacted Tom I’d written him this huge email — it was like a letter; I’d written it in Word, I spell checked it. I explained what I wanted to do and where I was coming from and all this stuff, this huge thing that I worked on for days, and he just responded right back, “Hey sure, no worries. Come to the first practice, here it is, it’s at this time.” I emailed him back, like, “No, do you understand that this is what I want to do?” and he said, “Yeah that’s fine, totally.” I think you see it in the film too while people [on campus] are filming them while they play? That happened all the time. Every time they played in a place where there was a high foot traffic people would film them. So they weren’t — and I think this is also like a generational thing with them — they were very comfortable with me right away. You know, like you said, I wasn’t a “Harry Potter” fan, I was a little older, and if someone asked me if they could film me every day if I did this thing I would say no because I wouldn’t feel comfortable. But they were comfortable with me right away. I think it took a long time to develop a level of trust with them and to get them to understand what we were doing, but in terms of access they were very open and inviting. It’s what Katie [Aiani] says, the whole culture was like that.
Ali, what is it like to have cameramen around accessing private moments? Is it uncomfortable at first? Do you just forget they’re there?
Ali: We’d kind of forget they were there because they’d show up sometimes at practice and you’re playing sports, so you’re pretty focused on what you’re doing and not really thinking about the camera. Then at the World Cup when they were shooting, I mean, you’re just trying to win. Tom would give his pump-up speeches before we’d play and you know you’re not really thinking “oh, what do I look like?” You’re just like, “okay, let’s go win.” Maybe if you were in a different kind of documentary it’d be more noticeable, but I think with sports you’re really focused on what you’re doing in the game.
Farzad, since you’d been following them around and filming, was it really stressful at the World Cup to watch the team go through so many highs and lows competing? Did you feel like part of the team at that point?
Farzad: Yeah, I think Tom did a really good job — because we had shot with them for like 8 months before we got to the World Cup, so they were really used to us. The way Tom is, he just did a really good job of integrating us into the team, so yeah, we really became a part of the group. It’s why even now I have strong relationships with almost everybody on the team, because we developed that over such a long period of time and there were times when it was really hard to focus on the job because we were so immersed in it. Jason, the other guy who shot with me on the film, he’s one of the coolest guys I know and he doesn’t show a lot of emotion, but he was so hyped when we were there because we were getting sucked into it too. I think that translates into the feeling of the games. At least I hope it does.
Ali, did quidditch teach you anything about yourself that surprised you?
Ali: As a kid I had grown up playing soccer and I played that all throughout high school — it can be pretty tough and people get injured. Then after that, I had done pole vaulting in high school, I tried out for the pole vault team in college and that’s pretty intense. So I had always played these tough sports as a kid and I didn’t really realize that I missed that when I stopped pole vaulting. In getting into quidditch, it was made more explicit that I really like these rough sports and I like full contact, and I like tackling people. I really enjoy that kind of physicality.
Farzad, did anything about the filming process surprise you?
Farzad: I think initially it was running into players that weren’t “Harry Potter” fans, running into players that just kind of heard about quidditch as this thing irrespective of the series and then becoming so committed to it. I remember one story — it’s not in the movie. Missy on the team was telling me — she’s actually a big “Harry Potter” fan — she was watching a “Harry Potter” movie and then quidditch came on and she was like “oh yeah, I forgot quidditch is in ‘Harry Potter!’” They really look at it as this distinct thing. I think the other thing that really surprised me is how hard and athletic of a sport it is. I played it early on just to kind of get a sense of that, and I was really shocked by how it’s hard to run around and play a sport one-handed, which allows it to be a really co-ed sport where boys and girls are sort of even in a way.
If you could describe the quidditch community in one word what would it be?
Ali: I would just say supportive. People can get really competitive in the games and really intense but at the end of the day I think the general feeling is that everyone is really happy for each other … if some player in the next game makes an amazing move, they like jump through a hoop or something, you’re going to be really happy for them.
Farzad: One word is hard. I’ll give you a couple words. Inviting and imaginative. I think those are the words that really capture them. They’re very open. They’re very nice. Because they are doing this idiosyncratic thing, there’s this sense of community not only amongst the team but among all the teams. But they’re also really creative with taking this thing that is impossible to do in real life and figuring out a way to do it. Not only figuring out how to play the sport but creating tournaments around it, creating an infrastructure where there’s an organization around it and to create something that has enough of a draw that they have fans now, and it’s growing not only across the nation but into other countries.
Speaking of that, something I loved in the film is the interviews with Katie Aiani, the big “Harry Potter” fan. I’m paraphrasing, but she mentions a Dumbledore quote from one of the books that says that just because something is happening in your head, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Farzad: Yeah. I think for me, Katie was really important from the beginning once I got to know her and meet her. Not only as a character, as I said earlier, but I wanted the person who watched this movie not to just see the team’s journey but to see the other things surrounding the sport — so, Alex organizing it, but also someone like Katie who travels across the country to go to this tournament, that’s a big deal for her. That’s not an easy thing, and it was also really important to me because she shares the same sort of passion for “Harry Potter” that these people have for this quidditch thing, and even though they look at it as something distinct there’s also a connection there. I think what she also does is provide context for the cultural ramifications of this phenomenon for this specific generation. In a very quick way you’re able to understand how big this thing is. I don’t think you would get that without her being in the movie.
Yeah, she was really awesome.
Farzad: And then as you said, she just has these words of wisdom in the same way that Dumbledore would do for the movie. She just kind of comes in and out of them and I think it’s really important for her contribution.
I also really liked when Alex talked about how a lot of people don’t even try to start to chase their dreams in life, and obviously the quidditch players are going after theirs. I really liked how beyond a sport this film was.
Farzad: I think that was a huge thing for me, and why I wanted to expand it. I think if someone had just seen the team’s journey they’d be like “oh that’s cute” or whatever, but I think the other two stories really open it up in a way to talk about the bigger things underneath it. On one level it is just a sports documentary, and when you get into it, like half the movie is just about this team’s journey and how far they can go and what they learn from it. But the first part of the movie is important because it really sets the parameters of what that sports documentary can do, and yeah, I think what Alex says in the beginning is really important. Especially when you’re creating something new, you really have to fight against what was there before, not just in sports but in anything you do. In art, in technology, in whatever, it doesn’t matter. Whatever was there before, if you’re going to come in and change everything — “change the game,” to use a sports analogy — you have to sort of be fearless and go for it and I think that’s what they are. So yeah, that was a huge part of it for me as well.
Do you think quidditch is picking up more popularity these past few years and will become almost a given on every college campus?
Ali: Yeah, I think it’s definitely grown. I’ve been to the World Cup twice and it was even more massive the second time I went. I think it’s just going to continue to grow as it gets more footing on college campuses. I know that when we started we were just sort of an unofficial, informal thing and then we became a club sport and I think that the longer that teams exist on college campuses the more recognized they will be. They won’t be the new kids in the club sports. They’ll have been there for a few years so they’ll be the ones that get the club sports sweatshirts in the right size and get more funding. And it’s easier to get funding throughout the processes to go to tournaments, to go to the World Cup, and I think as it continues to grow on college campuses it will grow as people graduate.
Farzad: I think in a way it already is a given in a lot of places. Not everywhere, but I think it’s already past that point. I think its going to be interesting what happens with it from here. We made the film — it’s almost three years now since we shot at the World Cup — and the sport has, I think, trended in a more athletic way. I think what’s interesting about it, it’s run by people who play it and the same age group runs it. Where it goes from here is really up to them. It’s really sort of a democratic process, and I think that’s part of how exciting it is. I don’t know where it’s going to go but its interesting to see how it develops.
Farzad, if you could choose one thing for viewers to take from the “Mudbloods”, what would it be?
Farzad: How far your imagination can take you and creativity can take you. Because they really took this impossible thing and made it real. And it takes imagination plus a high degree of determination to do this impossible thing, but they did it. Not only did they take this impossible thing and make it a real thing, but they built an infrastructure around it that has fans and I think that speaks to their determination and creativity.
This interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.