SIFF Presents Documentary on Prison Basketball Team at Ark Lodge

by Jacob Uitti

The new documentary, Q Ball, is the story of a group of incarcerated men hoping to find redemption through basketball. It screens as part of the Seattle International Film Festival at the Ark Lodge in Columbia City on Friday, May 17 at 6:30 p.m. and at the SIFF Uptown theater in Queen Anne May 18 at noon and May 21 at 3:30 p.m.

Produced in part by NBA All-Star and former Seattle Super Sonic Kevin Durant, the film profiles a handful of men whose crimes range from domestic abuse to gun possession to murder. While many of their crimes are severe, Q Ball paints a picture of at-times broken people in real need of love, support and rehabilitation. Prison, after all, is a place where people should reform and at San Quentin, for many, that reformation happens through sport and competition.

In the movie, we meet a man named “ATL” (aka Harry Smith), the one inmate who has a chance at going professional on the court upon release. But, we learn, Smith, who is in for striking a former girlfriend, can be his own worst enemy. While we see his prowess handling the ball and defending, we also see his propensity for hotheadedness and self-sabotage, two traits he works to soften while inside.

We also meet “Black,” a sweet-shooting forward in jail for over two decades because of California’s “three strikes” rule, and Rafael Cuevas, a murderer now filled with regret for his crime. Cuevas coaches the basketball team on which Smith, Black and a dozen others play. And the team, of course, is the San Quentin Warriors, a squad the NBA’s Golden State Warriors have taken under their wing and offered support, both financial and familial.

Each year as part of the partnership, representatives from the Warriors — including the sons of team owner, Joe Lacob, and coach, Steve Kerr — go to San Quentin to play the SQ Warriors for bragging rights and a chance to feel community around the game. Each year the game is highly contested with smiles and hand slaps offered afterwards, regardless of the outcome.

Without spoiling the twists and turns of the emotional and often gut-wrenching film, I recommend the movie to anyone who loves basketball and wants to see the benefit of connection, communion and hard work within the often-rugged penal system.

The Emerald spoke with film’s director, Michael Toljian, to ask a few questions about the making of Q Ball.

Jacob Uitti: When did the idea of the movie come to you?

Michael Toljian: After moving to the Bay Area in 2013, I drove past San Quentin Prison dozens of times. As I looked at the prison, I always wondered, “What’s life like inside? Who are the men there?” Shortly after, I read an article about the San Quentin sports programs and how basketball is helping rehabilitate the men who play on the team. Then, when I discovered the Golden State Warriors organization was directly involved in the program, I knew there was a story to tell.

JU: How much involvement did Kevin Durant and the Warriors have in the film?

MT: Kevin and his business partner Rich Kleiman are executive producers on Q Ball. KD had gone into San Quentin with the Warriors in 2016 and was impacted by his visit. He and Rich have been extremely supportive with the film — they reviewed rough cuts and provided feedback, they helped secure commercial music from top artists like Drake and Logic, and they are providing tremendous promotional support.

JU: Do you know the origins of the Warriors’ partnership with San Quentin?

MT: Basically, someone who worked for the Golden State Warriors was involved with one of the volunteer teams that go in and play the San Quentin Warriors. He slowly recruited more people — coaches and front office staff – and eventually the Warriors began to bring their own team in.

JU: This is a very emotional movie. Was it difficult balancing real life and death situations with this project?

MT: Prison is a very complex place, and crime is a very complex topic to tackle in a film. So yes, this was not an easy story to tell. In the end, I tried my best to make an honest film.

JU: What did you learn about yourself as a person or as an artist or as a moviemaker from making this film?

MT: I learned that I can not judge a person until I meet them, talk with them, and hear their story.

JU: What is your ultimate hope for the inmates whose stories you told in the film?

MT: This is a film about men who are trying to salvage their lives before it’s too late. My hope is that these men – individuals who truly want to change their lives for the better and have shown a real dedication to that process – will get the opportunity to show they are not the same people who committed their crimes. If given a second chance, I believe these men will have a positive impact on their communities and ultimately help prevent others from facing the same fate.

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Featured Image: A screenshot from Q Ball. (Image Courtesy Seattle International Film Festival)

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