Documentary on San Quentin’s Basketball Team Highlights Potential for Inmate Rehabilitation
By Chris B. Bennett, The Seattle Medium
Michael Tolajian, director of Q Ball – a film that chronicles a basketball team comprised of inmates at the San Quentin Prison in California — has a knack for producing projects that engage, entertain and provide a different perspective about people and real-life situations that are contrary to many of the stereotypes that are prevalent in society.
Tolajian, who earned an undergraduate degree in Economics from Cornell University, started to follow a different path in life before entering film school at University Southern California. According to Tolajian, he was always drawn to his creative side, but his father, who was very practical and grew up during the Great Depression, encouraged him to get a degree that would help him land a good job.
“I always wanted to go into a creative career, but my dad was like, ‘Yeah, you can look into that, but you’ve got to put food on the table and pay the bills,’” he says.
As fate would have it, Tolajian shunned the allure of investment banking on Wall Street and landed a job making $16,000 a year as a production assistant for the NBA, where he worked on profiles for some of basketball’s greatest players.
Now years later, Tolajian’s acclaimed career has offered him an opportunity to combine his creativity with his love for sports. Some of his most recent work includes the Pac-12 Network series “The Drive” which chronicles the athletic season of Pac-12 member schools. The in-depth series follows the success, failure, triumphs and letdowns of athletes and coaches as they prepare for games, play/coach in the games, and the aftermath of wins and losses both on and off the field.
In Q Ball, Tolajian’s gift for providing real life, enthusiastic and engaging drama keeps you stuck to your seat and is central to how he tells the story of the Warriors basketball team. No, not the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, but their little brothers from across the bay that carry the same nickname with enthusiasm and pride – The San Quentin Warriors. The team, which can only play home games, includes a roster of highly-skilled basketball players that could have played competitive basketball far beyond any community center, playground or high school if it had not been for life choices that landed them in prison. Harry “ATL” Smith, the team’s most promising player, is on the verge of parole and looking to realize his dream of playing in the NBA; Anthony “Ant” Ammons, who has dedicated his life sentence to mentoring younger inmates; and head coach Rafael Cuevas, who helps guide the team toward their goal of a league championship and the chance to play against the Golden State coaching staff on the hard court, are among the men who have been transformed by the teams rehabilitation program.
The documentary, with NBA superstar Kevin Durant as its executive producer, screened at the Seattle International Film Festival last weekend, portrays the inmates in an engaging manner that almost lets you forget that some of them have committed very violent crimes. They must follow the rules in order to play on the team, they must show respect towards their teammates and ultimately, they must be accountable to themselves and to the team in order to be successful.
“That was one of my goals [of the movie] to in some way break some of those stereotypes that many of us have from seeing TV shows and movies that play up a lot of the violence and scary things [that can take place in prison],” says Tolajian.
However, the film does not shy away from the fact that being in prison is not all fun and games. In one segment during filming, a fight breaks out while two of the film participants are playing chess. There were times when Tolajian and his crew would show up to film and get turned away because the prison was on lock down.
“It ain’t all fun and games in there,” says Tolajian. “San Quentin is a serious place and there are a lot of serious things that go on there, and people who have done some bad things. But the film hopes to show that if given the right opportunities and support, a lot of the men in there can evolve from the men they were to better men and people that have hopes and dreams and goals like anybody else to salvage their lives and be positive members of society.”