There’s overwhelming precedent in film for the separation of LGBTQ stories and those told within the world of sport – two often diametrically opposed parts of life with very little crossover. What crossover there is has often been reductive or bleak, either poking fun or revealing a dark underbelly of intolerance and players forced to remain in the closet. It makes the prospect of optimistic documentary Steelers: The World’s First Gay and Inclusive Rugby Club much more welcome – and a way to modernise a musty narrative.
Steelers is a modest film, both in production values and scope, in ways that sometimes work and sometimes don’t: the affecting small moments are often in need of a bigger picture to make them soar. It’s made by one of the London-based club’s former players, Australian reporter Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, who is narrator, director, writer and editor, telling the story of three queer people involved with the team as they compete against other gay clubs in the Bingham Cup.
He teases out some moving testimonies and provides a stinging reminder for many straight viewers that coming out isn’t always the happy ending many think it is, and there are still wounds that need to heal over. But the structure is disjointed, flipping around without confidence, from scrappily shot one-on-ones with players to mostly B-roll footage taken at the Bingham Cup. The gameplay scenes aren’t quite immersive enough and the film is missing historical context: how this team – and gay rugby – went from a punchline to an industry. The limited focus leaves Steelers seeming more like promotional material for the club than standalone documentary. It’s clearly made on a shoestring budget and, while well-intentioned, it’s a little too half-baked to land. Best met with a polite clap rather than a hearty cheer.