May 12, 2009

Win or Lose: A Summer Camp Story

If you guys don't win this next competition...

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.


  1. Wow, this tracks pretty closely with something I'm reading about gender acculturation. It seems to me that this camp is designed to break boys of any lingering "feminine" interests and make them all-man. Are there taunts about being queer, girly, or other nonmasculine attributes from the competitors?

  2. You know it's interesting, Marilyn, that the typically predictable behavior like that isn't really present in the film. Beyond masculinity, even issues of race and religion (the campers are predominantly Jewish) don't really bubble up. I think it's because these boys are defined by their privilege; chances are they go to well-heeled and externally well-mannered schools, and maybe because of that, defeat is experienced through private temper tantrums and shared crying instead of taunting, fighting, etc. (not that those don't happen at private schools or in affluent neighborhood playgrounds). The coaches are also campers and are coaching their own peers, so their drill sergeant mentality is also probably borne out of some subconscious desire to be respected as kings of the camp.

    I don't know, it's a pretty interesting cultural study. What you describe may very well have gone on outside of the camera's view, and even if it didn't, we don't see it. I met Louis when he was here for the showing at MSPIFF last month, but I wasn't able to stay for the Q & A with him after the film. If I had to guess, I would say his apparent nostalgic admiration for the lesson he learned probably prevented him from showing Camp Ojibwa in a decidedly negative light.

    But I don't think I'd ever send my kid there.

    If you're interested to check it out shoot Louis an email. He's actually looking for bloggers in Chicago (I already gave him your name) prior to the premiere there and I'm sure he'd send you a screener. Now that you've got me thinking on a deeper level, I'd be really interested to hear your observations on what you think is happening under the surface at that camp.

  3. I hope he contacts me. This really interests me. Or send me his email and I'll make the first move.

  4. You should expect an email soon, but I'll send you his contact info anyway.

  5. This is not a movie review. This is a collection of generalizations made about people you have never met, based on 59 minutes of edited footage from 8 days of one summer.

    Comparing the camp promotional video and the trailer should be funny - the former is an actual, accurate representation of what the first 7 weeks (read: majority) of the summer are like. The latter is an edited version of the last 8 days of camp. I would hope you could see the difference.

    I'm also not quite sure what Marilyn's comment is referencing. Collegiate Week is 1/8 of the summer. "It seems to me that this camp is designed to break boys of any lingering "feminine" interests and make them all-man." What makes you think this? This garbage excuse for a movie review? What you don't see in the film is the fact that activities like arts and crafts, socials with other girls camps, and a mid-summer musical show with broadway songs are prevalent every summer. Those qualify as 'feminine' interests in my book, whatever that actually means.

    My point is reviewing the movie is one thing - what I expected to see when I came here. Positive, negative - doesn't matter. But making baseless generalizations about people you truly know nothing about simply gives you no credibility and makes you look foolish in the process.

  6. Thanks for commenting, Brandon, and especially for not hiding behind "Anonymous". Honestly, I have much more respect for people who openly share their criticisms (especially when they're well written).

    It's clear to me that you have some allegiance to Camp Ojibwa and are making a point to make your voice heard anywhere you find a "review" of Win or Lose. In Lapat's defense (and the film's defense), however, his omittance of arts and crafts and social time with the girls makes sense to me as he's telling "a summer camp story". This story happens to be his story about his experience in the cult of competition that is Collegiate Week - nothing more and nothing less. If Camp Ojibwa is bothered by this film, I think they should send a response letter to all of their campers and post something on their website clarifying facts. That would be fair and appropriate, though I'm not sure exactly what they would say Lapat got wrong in portraying Collegiate Week (which, if you remember, is all that his film is about).

    And your other complaints aside, I don't consider it a baseless generalization to infer that the majority of these campers come from affluent families and communities. Maybe affluent is a relative term, but I'm defining it as "being able to pay $7,500 for your son to attend summer camp for two months". From my experience, people in that demographic can often be found in gated communities and private schools where, yes, life is a little more focused on competition, hierarchy, success, and being "the best". If you're sensitive to that suggestion, well I think that's more on you than it is on my, scattered write-up.

  7. Main motive of the girls camps is to develop confidence in each girl within a caring and encouraging atmosphere. These summer training centers provide various activities such as hiking, canoeing, and campfires for the campers. Girls camps activities encourage the girls for developing their behavior, character, find out new interests and campers study valuable life skills, and make new friends. Instructors of these training centers are well knowledge and experienced which directs these summer camps and they give necessary assessment to the campers.


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