In order to succeed, good documentaries need to tell interesting stories. Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club, a 2020 documentary directed by journalist Eammon Ashton-Atkinson, certainly lands on something of note: London’s Kings Cross Steelers, and their quest to win their first international gay rugby championship. There is something immediately of note about the subject matter. On one level, the image of a rough, violent, muddy sport like rugby jibes with societal stereotypes of homosexuality. On another, it seems a quite obvious pairing; few male sports seem so muscularly intimate. The Steelers are excellent material around which to develop a film. They were the first-ever gay rugby team to be formed, and yet – years later with dozens of other teams formed around the world – they have never won the world championship.
Good documentaries also need interesting people at their centre. Here, again, Ashton-Atkinson manages to pin down something worthwhile. Steelers focuses on three individuals: players Simon Jones and Drew McDowell, and coach Nic Evans. Each brings their own personal narrative to the film, and a fresh perspective on its central subject matter. For Nic – the team’s lesbian coach and a former rugby player herself – it is the bittersweet experience of spending her final season guiding the team. For Drew, it is how his exposure to the Steelers led him to also becoming the star of a drag revue. By contrast, Simon’s experience – by far the most powerful of the three – reveals bullying, self-doubt and ongoing clinical depression. It is both heartbreaking and uplifting, and provides a valuable contrast to the documentary’s more upbeat moments. One walks away with the highest regard for this honest and intelligent man.
The third successful element of Steelers is its personal touch. Writer/director Eammon Ashton-Atkinson is himself a member of the Steelers, and it was a pre-championship injury that sidelined him from play and led to his filming the documentary instead. This autobiographical element both supports and expands the three main narratives, and adds one more key perspective on rugby, the team, and homosexuality.
On a technical level, Steelers is relatively par for the course. There are no significant flourishes or stylistic presentations: simply a straightforward and uncomplicated representation of the team and the championship. It leads to a very humanistic treatment of the material. It foreshadows real people’s honest and vulnerable lives without distraction. It would be easy to ignore the documentary and allow it to casually pass by: it is about a sports contest, and therefore may deter anyone not interested in sport. At the same time it is about a queer rugby team, and thus may also deter anyone not interested in the LGBTQIA+ experience. This would be a huge mistake. Steelers is, foremost and ultimately, a documentary about people and human behaviour. It is an emotionally stirring, immediately relatable little gem.
Steelers is available to rent or buy online from 7 July 2021. Check your preferred video service, including YouTube, Amazon, and Google Play.