Sometimes it takes a tragedy to remind us of our zest for life. And sometimes, it takes a childhood game to help us grow up.
"Left Field" is a rousing, emotional documentary (screening Thursday as this month's offering in the Tallgrass Film Festival's Third Thursday film series) that chronicles the lives of several tattooed, anarchistic 20-somethings living in Chicago. They're like-minded yet disparate, free-spirited individuals who party hard and play even harder — and their game is kickball.
Yes, kickball. That game we all played as kids in elementary school that was supposed to teach us teamwork. For these people, though, it also teaches spiritual strength, and that their bond is as strong as any family.
The film's touching impact is all the more resonant because one of its central figures, KC Haywood, was originally from Wichita. But through the course of the film, he suffers severe injuries from an accidental fall at his Chicago apartment, and doesn't pull through.
Including that in the film was a choice that wasn't taken lightly by producer Chris Batte and director Ben Steger.
"Ethically, it was a fine line," Steger said. "We definitely wanted to avoid exploitation of the tragedy. On the other hand, it was an important event in the lives of the kickball community."
That such a community exists is a marvel — that's what drew the filmmakers in, at first. But then they found that the players shared more than just a love of the game.
Many of them were struggling with young adulthood and what to do with their lives. Kickball became a form of expression, a way of rebelling against the pressure to grow up.
The players find solace in the kickball league — it's a close-knit group, a family free of judgment.
But this utopian spirit becomes jeopardized when the league gets bigger. It attracts more and more players — some of whom put competition before camaraderie.
It isn't until Haywood's tragedy that the players are reminded why they came together in the first place. It makes them reflect on their own lives and mortality.
They put aside their petty differences and come together to support Haywood's fiancee, Sarah Hart (whose bravery and composure is an inspiration).
Haywood, who attended Northeast Magnet high School in Wichita, met Hart while he was working as a firefighter in Taos, N.M. They decided to move to Chicago — and that's when they met their kickball friends.
"Left Field" started out as a short film in 2006 with Batte and Steger, but the initial footage was lost when Steger's camera bag was stolen.
They knew they were onto something powerful, though — that their subjects were ripe with stories — and decided to make the film into a feature. So the men began shooting again when the league returned from hiatus in spring 2007. Production continued, including periodic interviews with the individuals, into 2008, ending with Haywood's accident and its aftermath.
Haywood's mother, Gail Haywood-Tucker, became good friends with the filmmakers and her son's kickball pals. She still lives in Wichita, and says family and friends here are ecstatic that "Left Field" is finally being shown in Wichita (it has played at many film festivals around the country and won numerous awards).
Such support is a testament to Haywood's positive energy, Haywood-Tucker says.
"I never met anybody who didn't just fall in love with him," she said. "He made a family wherever he went."
If you go
What: Screening of documentary following a kickball league in Chicago, featuring former Wichitan KC Haywood
Where: Former Hillside Baptist Church, 147 S. Hillside
When: 7 p.m., Thursday
How much: $10, $8 for student/senior/military
For more information, go to www.tallgrassfilmfest.com or www.leftfieldthemovie.com.