One nice thing about having a day job working for a kids sports magazine is that it gives me the chance to cover weird, interesting, and otherwise off-the-path sports. To wit: Quidditch.
By now, most people know that Quidditch is Harry Potter's favorite sport and that involves a fair amount of magic and, especially, flying brooms. But that hasn't stopped groups of highly creative and motivated kids from figuring out a way to bring a little of that wizarding world into our own. Instead of zipping around on brooms chasing after a wily, tiny Golden Snitch, real-life Quidditch players run around with a small utility broom between their legs and use dodgeballs and vollyballs, along with hoops set up on improvised pitches, to replicate the game conjured up by JK Rowling.
The first Quidditch team was organized at Middlebury College in 2005, and over the last 10 years Quidditch clubs have sprung up all over the US and in at least seven other countries. There are so many Quidditch players, in fact, that there are now multiple national Quidditch federations around the globe and even a Quidditch World Cup.
I knew a bit about this phenomenon thanks to the 2011 World Cup being played in New York. And that's really all I thought it was: a fad that would play itself out. But after watching the documentary Mudbloods, which follows the UCLA Quidditch club on its path to the 2011 World Cup, and talking with its director, Farzad Sangari, I have a new appreciation for Quidditch. The game has displayed serious staying power, and the people who play it aren't your run-of-the-mill Comic Con'ers. These are real-deal athletes who play a super intense, physical game and who also are really into Harry Potter. And they're turning their love of sports and the Potterverse into a sport that is steadily, if slowly, gaining traction among the generations of kids raised on Rowling's books and the movies that followed.
I talked with Sangari for an Sports Illustrated Kids Q&A about the movie and Quidditch, but the conversation was too long to run complete. But it was such a good chat that I thought it was worth publishing in total here. A trailer for Mudbloods is below, and another clip is embedded further down. And if you like what you see, info on where to find the film is at the end of this transcript.
How did you discover Quidditch was a sport being played on college campuses?
It was kind of an accident, really. I was going to UCLA at the time, and I just happened to walk by the field where they were playing. So I went home and I Googled it and I saw that it was not only a thing at our campus but nationally and, now, sort of internationally.
Had you read the Harry Potter books before you stumbled across this?
No, I'm a little bit older than them. I went to film school grad school at UCLA, so I was a little bit older than that generation. I had seen the movies, but I think it was a little bit behind my generation and I just never got into the books. But, I mean, Harry Potter is such a pervasive part of our culture that, as soon as I saw it, even though I had never seen it before I knew what it was. I knew what it was connected to. And it was sort of shocking just to see it for the first time.
Beyond that initial impression that you were surprised to see people playing a game that usually involves flying broomsticks, what was your reaction to it? How long did you stay and watch them play? What's going through your mind while you're watching this happen?
I stopped. And the thing was it wasn't just me that stopped and watched them. And you see this in the movie in one part where there's people filming them on their phones. When I started filming them in 2011, that happened a lot. Now it's kind of tapered down. They've kind of become more established, not only as a thing but as a club sport. UCLA Quidditch won the Club Sport of the Year at UCLA last year, which is a pretty big deal at UCLA because they have really great club sports. But when I was walking by, I realized that there was something really interesting happening because it wasn't just me watching them. There were a lot of people. And I just sat there and watched them for a while and I even called a friend of mine and told him what was happening. It was just this moment where I was just, like, Wow, I can't believe this is happening.
Did you have any conversations with any of the other people who stopped about what you were watching?
At that moment, no. But we filmed a lot with them and I did do that. The initial thing was just that I was kind of amazed that this thing exists, and so I went home and did some research about who in the UCLA community had started it. And it was pretty clear that all signs pointed to Tom. And so I initially just reached out to him, just to get a sense of who he was and what he's doing. And, yeah, as you see in the film, Tom's a very charming guy and he's very inclusive and open and he really wants a lot of people to know about this thing. I think it was with that mindset that he sort of brought me in. And as I kind of got to know him and the team, I would see people filming them when they were having an open practice and I would talk to them. It was interesting. You'd get a range of reactions to it, from, Wow this is amazing I can't believe this is happening, to, you know, the other thing that they're sort of fighting, which is sort of, Wow, this is kind of super weird.
What was Tom's reaction and the team's reaction when you went to them and said, I want to make a movie about you?
Well, I think this is a unique thing with this particular generation, not just the Harry Potter thing, but they're sort of used to people being interested in them and filming them, whether it's on their phone or whatever. They had a lot of interest from the school paper and even the LA Times had done an article on them. So they were used to coverage. But I don't think Tom really knew what he was getting into with me. I filmed with them for eight months consecutively. It was a long process. But to answer your question, I think they're inherently kind of comfortable with showing this thing because they want other people to see it and know about it. And I think there's also a level of comfort of having a camera put in their face. I think they're just sort of used to sharing in a way that I think my generation would not necessarily be so comfortable doing.
So this is your first film, why did you decide to do it about this Quidditch phenomenon?
I mean, there's a lot of reasons. I think the main reason was the people. When that first happened and I saw them and I went home and did research and talked to Tom, I made a little short film about them. It was just, like, a 10-minute thing. And I kind of was doing other things, but I came back to it because ultimately there's the initial moment, like we were talking about earlier, where it catches your attention and you just have to stop in your tracks and look at it. But once I made that short film, I had gotten to know the type of people who do this and I think it's just an interesting mix of people who are self aware, confident, athletic, and kind of nerdy. It's just this unique blend that I hadn't seen before, specifically in sports. I grew up playing a lot of sports as a kid and to see something that crossed a lot of these barriers for me, as a filmmaker, was very intriguing.
This sort of line it straddles between cosplay and sports is something you don't really see. You do see people go to football games or whatever dressed up, like in Oakland or Cleveland, but the idea that you would take something that exists in a fictional world, basically dress up, and then play it for real, not even joking around, is kind of intense.
Yeah, it's an extremely creative endeavor. I think there's been some other sports like that. I think they tried to do a sport from Battlestar Galactica, but it didn't really catch on and I think that speaks to how pervasive Harry Potter is. Everybody knows about it, so everybody kind of wants to do it. But, yeah, I think the thing that you're saying is very interesting. It's like... I think people are sort of put into these categories. Whatever it is, you're a nerd or you're an athlete. But what I think is interesting about these players, these athletes, is that it doesn't even register to them. They just sort of do these things because they're interested in them. They're interested in these things that are athletic, but they're also interested in these things that, however you want to classify it... But to me, it took a lot of imagination for them to do it and to make it real and to make it, like you said, this intense thing, with leagues and fans and tournaments. That takes a lot of effort. It's not just something you do on a Saturday. It's this thing that becomes a part of their lives.
I'm sure you heard some people maybe talking about them or putting it down. What was your reaction to that kind of stuff? I mean, bullying is such a pervasive thing, and sports is sometimes used as sort of way to short circuit bullying, but here's this thing that sort of engenders it in some ways.
Yeah, no, they told me stories about that kind of stuff happening. I saw things happening like that. But I think what's interesting about them specifically is that, especially at their age range, sports is sort of a way to sort of figure out who you are and identify some of the things that are important in your life, such as sacrifice and teamwork. And a lot of these players wouldn't get that opportunity if Quidditch didn't exist. And what's interesting about Quidditch is that they just decided to create this, and then they got an opportunity to play these team sports and get those positive things out of it. And, yeah, there's going to be those moments that are happening. But if you think of Quidditch not existing, they probably would have been bullied for being whatever anyway. But now they got a chance to sort of live out a thing that they would never have gotten an opportunity to do: Put on a jersey that has UCLA on the front, their name on the back and a number, and to play a competitive sport. And I think the benefits of that, I think that's why they're so dedicated to it and they're so passionate about it, because the things they get out of it — there are some negative ramifications that happen and you see some of those things in the film — but the positives that they get out of it are so much stronger than those negative things, that that's why so many people are drawn to it.
Yeah, that's a really good point. And it's cool to see someone say they can be a superfan or a nerd or whatever, but I can be an athlete, too.
Yeah. I mean, I think there's this thing that's kind of been happening in our culture where it's cool to be a nerd. But even that idea is two-dimensional in a way because you're still categorizing yourself as this one thing. If you look at someone like Asher or Sebastian or Alex or Missy or any of these players on the team, they're just super athletic. But they also happen to have this other element to them. It's this thing that sort of erases those arbitrary boundaries that we create for whatever reason.
Setting aside that this thing previously only existed in books and movies, what were your impressions watching it as a sport? I mean, the scene in the movie where a UCLA players gets a hit to the head and it starts to bleed. That's pretty intense.
Yeah, I mean, one of the first things I did even before I started filming them was play with them. And because I was super embarrassed and I didn't want to do it by myself, I made my friend come. And he plays basketball all the time, he's super athletic, and I played a lot of sports growing up so I'm pretty athletic, and he couldn't even play, like, two games. He had to sit out. He was, like, Dude, I can't even go. The first time I played it was when I realized, Wow, not only is it hard on a physical level, but there's so many things happening at once that it's really dynamic. Your brain and your body have to be working really fast. And then the other thing that I was really interested in from the beginning is the coed sport thing. I played a lot of intramural soccer or coed soccer after I got out of school, and there's different rules for genders usually. But this, I was, like, Wow, not only is it mentally and physically demanding, but it's a true coed sport. There are no separate rules for girls. And how your girls are integrated or how your boys are integrated into your team is really important. It just struck me as a thing that had so many layers to it. And I honestly don't think in the movie we were able to peel back all those layers because we had to spend a lot of time just explaining that this thing existed. But I think the people who become fans or who play the sport realize the levels of the game... Just like with any sport, I think someone who watches an NFL game doesn't necessarily understand all the strategy in it. But there is a lot of that stuff built into the game that I think is really interesting, that caught my attention.
Yeah. On the point about it being a coed sport, in the film during the World Cup, I think UCLA is playing Yale and this guy on Yale completely wrecks this girl on the UCLA team. There's no special treatment if you're a girl or a boy or whoever, depending on who has the ball. You're going to get taken out if you have it.
Yeah, yeah. I think you're talking about Missy. She definitely gets... Her cleats kind of go in the air on that one, for sure. But I think what's interesting, what I learned about it is that the girls just want to play those physical sports, too. It's, like, again, it's going back to these boundaries or these myths or these ideas, but these girls just want to play physical sports, too, and they don't want to be limited in any way. And the UCLA team, Missy, for example, in that example, she's one of their best players, if not their best player. And it's not even about whether she's a boy or a girl. She's smart, she's versatile, she's fast. She's just an essential part of the team. And I think that's really cool. When you're growing up and you're trying to figure out who you are and what place you are in the world, these team sports are an opportunity for you to create your identity. And something like that, like I said, if Quidditch didn't exist she wouldn't have that opportunity. But Missy's just a really good athlete; she plays all these other sports, too.
Yeah. I know going into the movie, I had some preconceived notions of who would play Quidditch. And I knew a little bit about it and had seen played here and there. But seeing some of the players on the team, they're just way more in shape than you might expect.
Yeah yeah yeah. But that's another cool thing about Quidditch that's unique to a lot of sports, I think, is that there are teams that are doing this just for fun. And even at that particular World Cup in New York, you did see teams like that and you saw some scores that were a little bit imbalanced because... I think the idea behind Quidditch, not only because it's so new but because of what it's connected to in terms of Harry Potter, is that they're very open and inviting. So they have this culture and this community that really opens the door for people who want to do it at that level. But because it attracts so many people, that naturally it's going to get increasingly competitive. I think Tom is the best example of that. Tom started the team, and when he first started they didn't have a lot of players so he was always playing. But even after one year, they had attracted so many of these really good athletes that he just sort of naturally kind of became the captain and the coach. It didn't bother him. He just wanted more people to play, he wanted to give other people an opportunity to play in the World Cup. It didn't even phase him. It was a natural transition.
You mentioned having to spend a lot of time explaining what Quidditch is and how it's played. Invariably that means talking about Harry Potter. Was it difficult as a filmmaker straddling the line between telling this story and giving enough background but also not running afoul of JK Rowling and intellectual property issues?
Yeah, it was definitely a challenge. I think the bigger challenge was not so much the line you're talking about but more the line between it being a fun sport and a competitive sport. I think the harder thing is to show people, yeah, it comes from this thing, so you might have these perceptions. And it is a very fun thing, it is a very open thing. But it's also a sport. And that's the line that was really hard to navigate as a filmmaker. But I think, you know, by the time you get to the tournament and you see all those teams come into the stadium and then you see a couple games, like the Yale game you're talking about, hopefully we've taken people through that process in the film.
So the movie takes place in 2011 and there's a little bit at the end about the 2013 World Cup and UCLA being the runner up. But what's the team up to now, and how has the sport maybe grown and changed since you completed shooting the movie?
What happened in 2012 was they didn't have the World Cup because they moved it to the spring, so that was the next World Cup, in 2013. So that same team that was in 2011 made it to the finals of the next year. Since then, a lot of those players graduated and moved on. And just like any collegiate sport, what happens is that when your seniors move on the team sort of, if you haven't recruited really well, it kind of regresses. So the team itself didn't have a lot of older players, and its been sort of rebuilding. But they did win Club Sport of the Year last year, which was a big achievement for them. Individual players have moved on. They're just doing other things. Like Tom, he works for PC Gamer, and a variety of players are doing different things.
I think the direction of where the sport's going now, I think we were really lucky to catch it at that moment, to have New York as a backdrop, because of just how big it was and where it was it had this ability to bring in not only just the sports crowd but also a very Harry Potter-focused crowd. Since then, since that World Cup, starting with 2013 when they made it to the finals, they've been having the World Cup in more remote areas. And because of that, I think the sport has trended more toward the athletic competition of it and the fans that they're attracting are more people who kind of see it as more of a sport as opposed to sort of this cultural thing. And I think that's kind of the direction, in general, the sport's going. Since last year, or just recently, they split up the IQA [International Quidditch Association], which is what Alex was running, into a thing called US Quidditch and then other countries now, I think seven or eight countries, have their own Quidditch associations, as well. So it's not just this one banner with all these other countries. US Quidditch is sort of the main one, with the national universities and high schools, and these other countries are trying to emulate that model. So it's been growing, not only on a national level but it's getting bigger on an international scale.
There's a part in the movie where Tom says that in 20 years this still going to exist and he'll be able to play with his kids. Do you think that's true?
I don't know. I think so. I think it really depends on them. It goes back to what I was saying about how they just sort of created this thing for themselves. I think what's interesting about Quidditch as opposed to, like, another sport is that it's sort of run by them. Where it goes, it can go in a lot of different directions, I think. Like I said, it's been tending more towards trying to establish itself as a legitimate sport. But, you know, I don't know. I think it's another thing that I find interesting about them, that it really is a democratic exercise. These people are running it, and that comes with the challenges of a democracy. There are a lot of people who want it to go a certain way and a lot of people who want it to go in a different way. And I think it's sort of interesting to sit back and see where it potentially can go.
Yeah. And since making the movie are you stopping by Quidditch matches now? Are you a fan?
(laughs) I kind of had a lot of Quidditch in my life. I haven't been following it as intensely. But they're getting better at... The past few World Cups have had a much better online presence. Like, they have commentators and stuff. So I'm always in touch with them. I'm sort of in touch with the individual people that I kind of followed, and some of them are still involved with Quidditch a lot and some aren't. Like Alex and Missy, they started playing other countries, so they're part of the US team. But then some of the players haven't been playing as much. So I'm more in touch with the people as opposed to the organization. Although that being said, I'm still in touch with Alex a lot, so I'm seeing how Quidditch is growing through his perspective, and I think that's a very interesting thing, too. They've established more of the infrastructure to develop the sport. When we shot the film, Alex was doing a lot of it on his own. He was pushing to make it happen, like that specific event for example. But now they have employees and a staff and he's sort of moving up and developing more of the infrastructure. So, yeah, I guess I am very connected to how it's developing.
Are you working on anything now?
I'm working on another film that's not my film, and then I'm also sort of developing another documentary. But it's not Quidditch related, unfortunately.
Yeah, that's probably for the best. I mean, I don't know how much... I'm sure there's enough to do an update at some point, but I don't know if there's necessarily... People might be Qudditched out, in terms of documentaries.
(laughs) Yeah, I know. It's like we're the definitive Quidditch documentary. I'm not sure... You might have to ask somebody else.
Well, that's not a bad thing, considering how into everything Harry Potter Harry Potter fans are. So to be the definitive anything involving Harry Potter is probably a good deal.
Yeah, I think so. But, as you said, a where-are-they-now kind of thing, I think if you did something on them now, it would be a very different experience because we got it at a time when it was at the crosshairs of Harry Potter and a sport. And now it's tending more toward sports. So I think it would be interesting to revisit it now or to see how the sport's grown because I don't think it'd be the same... I think it would have more of a sports feel, as opposed to our film, which is a little bit more, I don't know, it's like half a sports film, you know?
Yeah. It would be interesting if it does trend that way. I mean, in the moment we're in right now, video games are considered a sport with big advertiser interest. So to have an actual physical activity be a new sport, sort of seeing it develop as this thing, would be pretty interesting.
Yeah, no, for sure. That's why we started the film with Tom holding up this Quidditch video game because it's, like... Alex told this great story about when Quidditch started.It was 2005 and he was at Middlebury and he was just trying to get people to come outside and play Quidditch. And he went to this one kid, and was, like, Hey, you guys are playing video games, we're playing Quidditch outside, do you want to come? And the kid's, like, No, I'm just going to sit here and play video games. And it's, like, this moment where if that kid had just put down the video games and went outside he would have been living a video game. You know? And that's why we end the film with Tom with all these players, because it's, like, Oh, he could have just stayed inside and been this geeky nerd playing video games, but he created this team. And that's just a testament to their imagination.
Mudbloods is available on Netflix and iTunes. You can also purchase the movie on its website, which also includes additional materials about the film and real-life Quidditch.