My English teacher once taught me that the best and most enduring works, whether written or visual, have one thing in common: they depict core features of what it is to be human. Though it is a film about the LGBT tennis circuit, Shiv Paul’s short documentary Queens at Court achieves that in highlighting people’s common search for a sense of belonging.
The pursuit of acceptance is epitomized by the four protagonists in the film, given that in each there’s a feeling of alienation in aspects of their own lives.
Chip Hines is an obese man nearing fifty who has never been in a relationship; Giselle Lian is an Asian-American male to female transsexual; Jean Telfort is a Haitian-American military veteran returned from Afghanistan; and Paul himself is Indian-born, but brought up in the UK and now a New Yorker. Together they have found a home and community through tennis.
Premiering in New York’s SAGE Center on August 21, the documentary’s vision is to “challenge and change the perceptions around what it means to be a gay athlete,” according to Paul, who has been working with the United States Tennis Association’s diversity division to leverage the film.
He jokes about stereotypes and the idea that a tour of gay tennis players would result in people hooking up across the board and orgies taking place every night: “It just doesn’t happen. Unless it’s happening and I’m just not being invited!”
Born in India to a father in the oil industry, Paul’s family moved to Epsom in Surrey, England. The youngest of five children who are all spread across the world now, Paul has spent eight years in New York City.
The filmmaker’s pedigree involved time spent mainly in front of screen rather than on the other side. While in India, he was part of English language films and commercials. Like in New York, he says there was a sense in Mumbai that someone “can make anything happen”.
Paul put acting aside. Having worked as a journalist for glossy magazines and even writing a book in the meantime, he calls the change to creating a film an interesting process.
“We had twenty-five hours of footage for the final twenty-minute documentary,” he notes.
Initially his vision was not aligned with Queens at Court’s cinematographer Aaron Schillinger. It evolved over the course of filming: “At first we wanted to shed light on this part of the LGBTQ community, with 60 international tennis tournaments and 10,000 players.”
Ultimately they decided this was about challenging perceptions of LGBT athletes and to “empower people towards acceptance by watching the film and asking themselves whether they have the sense of acceptance that is out there.”
Paul admits he was conscious of diversity on screen and included the stories of people he’d become acquainted to on the tennis circuit. He knew the “alluring” transgender player Lian when she was Andi. He knew the stocky Hines from tournaments and reveals the first thought that crossed his mind was “how the hell does Chip play?”
Paul says he was driven by the desire to find out stories. The final member of the core four contributors, Telfort, was not originally central to the film but was built in with his story of post-war trauma and being unable to be around people or operate a normal life. He reveals that this new home on tour “saved my life”.
“The film is not so much about tennis but people’s search for belonging, something that’s part of the human condition. It shows a microcosm of society, everyone in there shows variety in the physicality or personality sense,” observes Paul.
He admits there could have been difficulties with practical aspects of the documentary but says he was “lucky with the subjects, there were no holds barred.” His fellow players explained that he himself should feature in the film. That was a challenge, he says, being a private person.
Other than that, the main difficulty was to film each story objectively. His only regret was not getting more tournament footage, including some from abroad.
With the question of gay athletes in US team sports being topical, it had to be asked what lessons could be learned from this LGBT international tennis tour.
“I think it’s the sense of community—that might resonate with team organizations. This group travels, plays, eats and hangs out together,” Paul concludes.