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House of Champions: Local doco follows the highs and lows of Special Olympians

House of Champions’ success is in how it avoids making a fuss about anything.

Documentarians tend to move from one story to the next – but sometimes they find a story so rich, they’re compelled to stay with it, to tell more. House of Champions (Three, Wednesday, 8.30pm) is the work of two film-makers who took the latter path.

Kirsty Griffin and Viv Kernick made their first funded documentary, the 2014 Loading Docs short Wayne, about Wayne Richardson, a resident of the Amy Street supported living community in Thames, wrestling with a matter of the heart.

That was followed by the multiple award-winning eight-part 2016 web series Amy Street, which introduced a cast of residents from the Supported Life Style Hauraki Trust, a community-based assisted living programme for adults with intellectual disabilities in the Coromandel town of Thames.

Several of the residents return for House of Champions, which follows Amy Street flatmates Jonathan Read, Celeste Osterman and Carla van Deventer as they prepare for and compete in the 2017 Special Olympics’ National Summer Games in Wellington. The event attracted more than 3000 people – athletes with intellectual disabilities, their coaches and team managers.

It needs noting right here that this is not, as it’s sometimes called in the disability world, “inspiration porn”. All three of the trio have their own lives to live, their own interests (the ladies, as they did in the web series, keenly follow local TV drama, while Jonathan has more of a head for politics) and their own joys. The road to the games is dotted with encounters with un-athletic food, drinks they’re not supposed to be having, a party and relationship qualms.

Music fans will recognise the touch of James Milne, aka Lawrence Arabia, on the soundtrack. Several of his best-known songs are used and the key tune, The Beautiful Young Crew, is shorn of its original hipster cynicism and reborn as something new and affirming.

But the real success of the documentary might just be the way it resists making too much of a fuss about anything. There are significant highs and lows at the games themselves – and before that, a strange encounter with a Member of Parliament in which the politician doesn’t come off too well – but it’s all taken in stride. Life goes on, as it does for all of us. And on good days, there’s joy to be had.

Amy Street is available online at NZ On Screen.  

This article was first published in the September 21, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.