Review: Wild in the Streets 

Hooligans’ island. Royal Oak Film Society presents a close-up look at a very unusual sporting event

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Wild in the Streets| B+

In the quaint Derbyshire village of Ashbourne, U.K., there is a sports tradition that dates back nearly a millennium — and though it no longer involves the tossing about of a decapitated virgin’s head, it has lost none of its muddy, chaotic fury. The game is known as Shrovetide Football, and it is the testosterone-fueled progenitor of modern-day soccer, rugby and American football.

Director Peter Baxter, co-founder and president of the Slamdance Film Festival, bravely positions his documentary crew in the middle of this East Midland town’s raucous, nonstop, two-day rugby free-for-all, an annual competition that pits 3,000 participants against one another in a mad scrum to deliver a four-pound homemade leather ball into the opposing team’s cross-town goal. There are no referees, no fouls, and no out-of-bounds (except churches and cemeteries). Alcohol is, of course, the sustenance of choice.

How Ashbourne’s teams are determined, we learn, is a matter of birth rather than choice. Those born north of the river Henmore are called Up’ards. Those from south of the river, are considered Down’ards. The loyalties, triumphs and betrayals of team lore are related by locals, whose accents are so thick subtitles are a necessity. The people of Ashbourne take their bare-knuckled competition seriously indeed. When a brother defects from one team to another, scandal ensues. Baxter’s crew interviews a Sunday-school mum who jokes about her son’s choice of team but you can see the gravity in her eyes.

Colorful residents, nifty archival footage and narration by actor Sean Bean (Game of Thrones), who grew up less than 30 miles from Ashbourne, help provide context for Baxter’s energetic exploration of what may be the oldest ongoing sports rivalry on Earth.

Does Wild in the Streets have a whole lot to say about the human condition, sports or our deep-rooted need for team loyalty? Not really. Other than a passing nod to the social friction generated between modern suburban trends and Ashbourne’s traditional community values, Baxter is content to immerse us in Shrovetide’s storied history and give us a front row seat to the giddy spectacle of neighbors who wrestle, trample and pummel one another in the name of a beloved custom. mt

Wild in the Streets is part of the Royal Oak Film Society’s every-other-month movie screenings. Director Peter Baxter will be on hand for a Q&A with the audience. It takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7, at at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-542-5198; see royaloakfilmsociety.com for more info. 

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