Ryan Sidhoo’s new docuseries, True North, looks at the youth basketball scene in Toronto. (photo by Yasin Osman)
“Wherever I travel, I go play pickup basketball and I always make friends, and maybe end up at someone’s house for dinner … you go ask to play basketball on someone’s court, there’s always that moment of, ‘Who is this guy?’ but, once you get out there and you start playing, it’s an inviting, universal sport that you don’t need a lot to participate in,” filmmaker Ryan Sidhoo told the Independent in a phone interview from Toronto.
Sidhoo is the creator and director of True North, a nine-part online docuseries produced by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and Red Bull Media House about the youth basketball scene in Toronto.
“More and more young Canadians are playing basketball – over 350,000 according to the 2014 Canada Youth Sports Report – and the trend is particularly pronounced in and around Toronto, where a wave of second- and third-generation Canadians are shaping Canada’s new game,” notes an NFB blog about the series. It also notes that, “Canada now has over a dozen players in the NBA [National Basketball Association], more than any other outside country.”
In episodes ranging from 15 to 23 minutes, True North examines “the rise of the Toronto hoop dream through the stories of five young athletes.”
The series – which was three years in the making – “has a multigenerational appeal,” said Sidhoo, who spoke with players, coaches and families. Given the subject matter and format, he said younger viewers enjoy it but that, also, people closer to the age of the parents of the kids featured get something out of it from a parenting point of view.
In the series format, he said, we can tell in-depth stories, “but then that 15-minute episode has to be focused on one kid and their journey. I think that’s an appeal of the series, because they’re highly personal episodes and they’re not trying to do too much at once.”
Sidhoo has worked on various projects, including for Pulse Films, MTV and NBCUniversal, and he has produced and directed content across various VICE platforms; he was the creator and executive producer of Welcome to Fairfax, a 10-part docuseries for Participant Media about a group of young entrepreneurs in Los Angeles.
Born and raised in Vancouver, he’s since lived in California and New York. It was in New York that he earned his master’s in media studies, with a focus on documentary filmmaking, from the New School, in 2013.
“The seeds of the project were really planted at that time,” he said, referring to True North. At the New School, he wanted to do a project “on this old streetball legend named Fly Williams, who I’d read about in a book my dad had given me as a kid called Heaven is a Playground.”
In his search for Williams, Sidhoo ended up at a few different basketball tournaments. At the time, YouTube was just taking off, he said. “What I was seeing at these gyms in New York were these parents marketing their children as the next best basketball phenom. You started to see this cottage industry around youth basketball.”
Fascinated by this, Sidhoo said he kept his finger on the pulse of that world. He noticed that Canadians were having a lot of success getting into the NBA and the question of how basketball became significant in Canada led him to Toronto, “the epicentre of it all.”
“For me,” said Sidhoo of his love of basketball, “growing up in Vancouver, and, especially, having immigrant roots on both sides – my mom is Ashkenazi, they came from Poland and Winnipeg and eventually Vancouver, [while] my dad’s side of the family is from India – I just think that the popular sport in Canada is, obviously, hockey, and winter sports in general have more of a built-in tradition … [but] basketball lends itself to newcomers to a country, so my dad gravitated towards basketball as a kid. For me, growing up, basketball was always in the house, it was always on TV, it was something that I was around and I, naturally, through my dad, was introduced to the sport…. Of course, I like hockey and Wayne Gretzky and all that, but basketball was the thing that was a part of my identity … I always felt comfortable in the niche community of basketball in Vancouver because it was really diverse and it was very multicultural. As someone who had these mixed backgrounds, I felt at home in that world.”
Sidhoo played in various leagues in Vancouver, as well as participating in more than one JCC Maccabi Games. He described as “pivotal,” the Kitsilano Youth Basketball, run by Mel Davis, a former Harlem Globetrotter. Davis’s son, Hubert Davis, directed Hardwood, a documentary (also produced by the NFB) about his relationship with his father and basketball. When Sidhoo saw that film, he said he had two thoughts: “one, that’s amazing, because I know Mel and remember Hubert refereeing the games but then, secondly, it’s projects like that that plant the seed that, hey, maybe I could be a documentary filmmaker, too.”
As a kid, Sidhoo and his brother were encouraged to do what they wanted creatively. “I’d go out back and make videos of myself playing basketball,” he said. “My dad was always showing us films that maybe he shouldn’t have been showing us at that young an age, but explaining why he was showing them. So, basketball was always there and these offbeat films, or films that were aged above my viewing in terms of age appropriateness, that was always a constant, too.”
Growing up, he was also exposed to books, art shows and other culture. Sidhoo recalled his father taking him to one of the first Slam City Jams, a skateboard competition, in the early 1990s, when Sidhoo was 5 or 6 years old. “Back then, skateboarding wasn’t as corporate as it is now, it was still pretty punk,” he said. And, while it was a bit different to be at such an event, “at the same time, it’s normal because I’ve been consuming this kind of content and going to different, what you could call counter-culture, events, with my dad. So, the fascination with subculture was always there, along with basketball.”
True North is Sidhoo’s first project with the NFB. He called the film board with his idea while in Vancouver, and spoke with Shirley Vercruysse, executive producer of NFB BC & Yukon Studio. “She was open-minded,” said Sidhoo and connected him to the paperwork he’d have to submit for the NFB to consider producing the documentary.
“What I think attracted the National Film Board,” he said, “was that basketball is shaping Canadian identity, because we’re exporting so many amazing basketball players to the south that the perception of Canada is not just hockey anymore … basketball is part of the shifting Canadian identity. On a global, macro picture, that resonated with the film board. And then, also tapping into the human, story-driven documentary approach that I wanted to take is what the film board has been doing for a really long time. It spoke to a story that was big, but then also was told through the intimate, personal narratives of these kids. It was a nice combination for them, I think.”