To say that The Other Dream Team documents a triumph over adversity is to indulge extreme understatement, as Marius Markevicius’s film distills the Lithuanian people’s struggle to regain independence from the Soviet Union, who ruled them for 50 years after invading the country in 1940, into the story of basketball players trying to realize their dreams while weathering considerable and notorious hardship. The film uses the familiar underdog sports-team template as a way of exploring a large, unsettlingly forgotten network of tragedies.
In 1988, the U.S.S.R. won the Olympic gold medal in basketball with a predominantly Lithuanian team that was forced to play under their oppressor’s name. Breakout stars such as Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvyadas Sabonis became poster boys for the Soviet Union’s sports machine, giving speeches (written for them) expressing lies and half-truths that they despised, while the KGB followed them around to assure their complacency. Poverty and starvation in Lithuania was stifling, and the men’s families, despite their celebrity, would fight in line with hundreds of others for hours for a chance at a loaf of bread. Many of the players, with their distinctively inventive and hard-nosed form of play, attracted potentially profitable NBA attention that would be momentarily quashed by the Iron Curtain.
Lithuania eventually won their freedom in 1990 after years of protest and revolt, shown here in moments that can’t help but contain a contemporary relevancy, and, in 1992, an expressly Lithuanian Olympic team was formed, financially supported by the likes of the Grateful Dead, who provided the players with a series of tie-dye t-shirts that would come to define their amazing assertion of hard-won national identity. The Lithuanian team would subsequently beat Russia in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, winning the bronze medal.
Markevicius, who has Lithuanian heritage, is clearly in love with this story that exemplifies an amazing and sobering collective force of will. But as amazing as this story is, it’s also a lot of story, particularly for a 90-minute film. The Other Dream Team has a jumpy propulsive editing rhythm that works for and against it. You’re allowed to feel the tension and exhilaration and fear of the beleaguered athletes at various crucial turns (impressively, all of the key players have been interviewed, as well as members of the Dead and various American sportscasters), but the ghoulishness of Lithuania’s history with the Soviet Union has been compromised by the flashy ESPN-infused aesthetic. Admittedly, the film is the story of a very good Lithuanian basketball team first and foremost, but certain images—of Russian tanks, of bread lines—breeze by in a flash that exhibits an unintentional, and queasy, insensitivity. The doc has been made with considerable reverence, but it doesn’t quite manage to tow a tricky tonal line that’s required when working with such sensitive and complicated material. The Other Dream Team ultimately appears to be more the work of a rabid sports fan than a filmmaker.