The hands-down — or should we say brooms-up? — favorite sport in the wizarding world of Harry Potter is Quidditch. A competitive and sometimes violent game played high above the ground by competitors zooming around on flying brooms, Quidditch is the kind of activity fans could only imagine playing in our less magical real world.
Except that groups of creative and athletic Harry Potter fans found a way to make Quidditch into a real-deal sport. Using brooms, hoops, balls, and a whole lot of ingenuity, Quidditch is now played at colleges and high schools around the US and across the world. The first team was formed at Middlebury College in 2005, and as word about the school’s Quidditch club spread to other campuses young fans formed their own Quidditch teams and turned unused patches of grass into their own Quidditch pitches.
The new documentary Mudbloods follows the UCLA Quidditch club, led by coach, captain, and founder Tom Marks, as it prepares to compete in the 2011 Quidditch World Cup in New York. They have to practice their guts out, raise money to get to NYC, and ignore a lot of curious looks and ignorant put downs from people who just don’t understand how — or why — anyone would play a nerdy-looking game.
But here’s the thing: Quidditch is intense and physical. Way more than you might expect. And it’s captured expertly in Mudbloods. SI Kids talked with director Farzad Sangari about making his Quidditch documentary, how he discovered the non-traditional sport, and why it’s a game we should pay more attention to.
(Editor’s note: While the film has a positive message that’s appropriate for everyone, it does feature two or three moments of rough language. It is college, after all! But fair warning.)
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.
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 only existed in books and movies before, 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.
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. It would be interesting if it does develop into a more organized sport. 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!
Talking Quidditch with the Director of Mudbloods
In The Mag This Month