If you've ever played a competitive team sport, Win or Lose: A Summer Camp Story will frighten you with all the worst aspects of the spirit of the games you grew up with. "There's really winning, and...absolutely nothing," says one of the teens fired up over Collegiate Week at Camp Ojibwa, a boys summer camp tucked away in the Wisconsin woods.
Inspired by his own experience at the camp during his teenage years, Win or Lose is the documentary debut from filmmaker Louis Lapat, who left camp early in his fourth summer because he was fed up with trying to conform to the overbearingly competitive spirit of the place. You can hardly blame him; as 13 year-old Joel Lapin, a current camper, scoffs about his campmates, "if they were to choose respect over winning, they'd choose winning any day." Throughout their formative years these boys attend camp every summer, arriving as scrawny children and leaving as testosterone-fueled twenty year-olds.
Camp Ojibwa is the kind of place that exists in a world apart from 95% of people - not geographically (well maybe, since that percentage couldn't find Wisconsin on a map), but economically: the 8-week tuition currently listed on the camp's website is $7,500. Over the course of these two months, the boys are ostensibly supposed to learn...well, it's not entirely clear from the "philosophy" outlined on the website. From Win or Lose, it would appear it's simply a place for affluent parents around the country to ship their boys for a while, hoping they come back with some trophy to display to the neighbors. For the boys, too, there seems to be little of importance at Camp Ojibwa other than Collegiate Week, the team-based competition and the culminating event of the summer.
Prior to "The Week", older campers are selected as team coaches, each of whom selects a college to represent their team (Texas, Illinois, etc.). This is followed by an actual draft session, and then, finally, several days of intense competition. In the midst this process, Lapat profiles a handful of campers of different ages and talents. Andrew "Arob" Robinson (pictured above) is a wild-eyed coach trying to win The Week with the severe disadvantage of having the worst draft position. Adam Korn is another coach trying to prove that even though he wasn't the most talented athlete in years past, he knows how to coach a team to victory.
It all makes for pretty suspenseful drama, if not nerve-wracking discomfort. These boys, likely shielded from the ills of the world throughout most of their life, are here presented with a scenario that threatens their very existence. At home, they are the princes of their gated communities. At camp, if they aren't equally recognized as "the best", well they may as well be nothing. Charlie, a 15 year-old longtime camper, literally checks himself into the infirmary after his team loses in its first day of competition. He is an absolute mental wreck over a game that takes place for twenty minutes witnessed by 100 kids at a secluded camp.
Fortunately, most of these campers bounce back from their defeat (after hours of weeping, of course). It's a traditional temptation to throw the second-place trophies into the lake, but the runners-up in Win or Lose elect not to, realizing their hard work was not entirely in vain. It's a lesson that you can only hope they take with them for the rest of their lives. If they have a good head on their shoulders like Louis Lapat, they may emerge from this environment not with an obsession to "win" at everything they do, but instead a determination to boldly define their own success.
(Hilarious: Compare Lapat's teaser trailer below with the camp's promotional video on its website)
Win or Lose: A Summer Camp Story will next screen in Chicago on Sunday, May 31, 2009. If you're in the area, buy tickets here. The film won a Jury Prize at the recent Wisconsin Film Festival and will be premiering on PBS later this year.