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Review of Warriors on the Field – a celebration of Indigenous players in Australian rules football

July 6, 2022

The Amazon original documentary Warriors on the Field will be released on the streaming service on July 8, 2022.

The promise of sport is that it tends to be (mostly) a meritocracy where, regardless of race, heritage or creed, anyone talented enough and hardworking enough is able to rise to the top of their field. . Sport can unite us and give us a chance to come together to celebrate our common humanity. However, there is no denying that for many communities this has not always been the case, with access to elite sport shamefully denied to many.

Warriors on the Field explores the complex legacy of racism against Indigenous people in Australia through the lens of the AFL (i.e. Australian rules football, for the uninitiated).

The documentary follows three AFL players, Michael O’Loughlin, Michael Walters and Tarryn Thomas, a mix of trailblazing legends and up-and-coming prospects in the sport. He tells his larger story through their experiences. All three players share a common heritage and seemingly childish experiences of being obsessed with the sport, breaking windows and dealing with persistent racism, even at the junior level of the sport.

It is with O’Loughlin that we spend the majority of our time, a now retired sports legend, and it is through him that we are introduced to other players, his family and his legacy. He’s a likeable guide, clearly a man in touch with his community and committed to improving inclusion in his sport, both at his club the Sydney Swans and in the game in general.

As a UK based reviewer I am not a huge AFL fan and to be honest I only have limited exposure to the game. I am however a sports fan so am predisposed love this kind of functionality. Good sports docs tend to understand that sports are a brilliant metaphor for the rest of life; where ideas like victory and defeat, elation and despair play out in a microcosm. On rare occasions, movies manage to transcend that and tell a larger, important story, using sports as a vehicle to grapple with more difficult subject matter. I’m not sure Warriors on the Field can reach that level, but it’s clear that’s the ambition.

Warriors on the Field does a good job of blending its central story, the First Nations peoples of Australia, and the endemic racism that so many have faced, with the usual highlight reel of an exciting and demanding sport. I came away from watching it feeling like I learned a lot about both and wanted to dig deeper.

Where Warriors on the Field fails is to match its ambition with its reach. It is a short piece, lasting only about 50 minutes. Telling the story of racism in Australia towards Indigenous people, and how it has manifested and is gradually changing in the AFL is a difficult task. Doing it in 50 minutes while weaving together the biographies of three individual players seems impossible.

Due to the truncated execution, it feels like a lot of interesting threads are really only half-done. Key ideas are let in and then discarded just as quickly. I would have liked to see a two-hour version of this or even a three-part series that has the opportunity to really explore the complexity of its subject matter while giving us a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the people involved.

Globally, warriors in the field tells an important story in a sympathetic and thought-provoking way, but it doesn’t quite give itself the space to really do it justice.

What did you think of the original Amazon documentary Warriors on the Field? Comments below.

You can watch this documentary with a Prime subscription.

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