CSFF: Salute

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Dir. Matt Norman (2008, Australia, 94 mins.)

The best documentary subjects do not need to be exaggerated; by extension, the best documentary filmmakers choose a compelling subject and tell the story honestly. Lesser documentaries make a great spectacle of one-sided stories, blustering filmmakers, and out-of-context quotes. Good documentaries, like Salute, eschew all that nonsense. Instead, filmmaker Matt Norman attempts to tell a naturally compelling story in the most complete, honest, and methodical way possible. The result is a film gracefully executed, a portrait lovingly rendered, and a credit to Australian filmmaking.

Many will be familiar with the image of the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute – after all, it is one of the most iconic images of the 1960s and has appeared in textbooks, posters, and even The Simpsons. I also suspect that more than a few people wondered, as I did upon first encountering the image, about the white man standing on the podium who seemed to have stumbled into history. His name is Peter Norman, and his story, as chronicled by his nephew in this film (along with the stories of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American athletes), turns out to be both fascinating and deeply moving. By wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button in solidarity with his fellow athletes, Peter Norman incurred the wrath of outraged sports officials; four years later, even though he was ranked as the fifth fastest man worldwide for the two hundred meter event, he was barred from attending the Munich Olympics.

Salute takes the time – a significant amount of time – to carefully build its historical context, much to its credit. It is too easy and misleading to think of historical events in terms of their effects; it is much more worthwhile and essential to understand historical events in terms of their causes. The majority of the film discusses events leading up to the salute – the proposed boycott by black American athletes of the Olympics, the violent riots in Mexico City prior to the games, and the incredible build-up to the two-hundred-meter race itself. Other critics have superficially criticised the film for taking too much time to build this context. Frankly, I prefer this methodical approach, as opposed to the usual convention of slapping together a stock footage montage of the 1960s  (the image’s appearance in The Simpsons was in a parody of such stock montages).

This is a documentary with resonance. It will spark conversation. It will add depth to an iconic moment in history. From a documentary, we can’t ask much more.

Dave Robson

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  2. Jose says

    This film reminds me why documentaries are so beautiful. I applaud the filmmaker for giving us a true look into one of the most amazing Olympic moments in history. I like many others around me cried when I saw this film. Can I be so blunt and hint the word OSCARS!! This is a film that completely makes you feel blessed to know that in this world there are people looking to do the right thing. Peter Norman showed his talent on the track and then his humanity off it.

    The greatest compliment to Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos is Matt Norman (the filmmaker) who has told this story with such passion that it would be the first time in over 40 years that we’re finally hearing the truth. Matt Norman shows us why it’s important to stand up when everything goes wrong. Stand up and be proud no matter what your color, race, religion or creed. Stand up because its expected. Thank you Mr Norman and I know your late Uncle would be so proud of what you have done.

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