By Chris B. Bennett
The Seattle Medium
Michael Tolajian, director of Q Ball – a film that chronicles a basketball team comprised of inmates at the San Quentin Prison in California — has a knack for producing projects that engage, entertain and provide a different perspective about people and real-life situations that are contrary to many of the stereotypes that are prevalent in society.
Tolajian, who earned an undergraduate degree in Economics from Cornell University, started to follow a different path in life before entering film school at University Southern California. According to Tolajian, he was always drawn to his creative side, but his father, who was very practical and grew up during the Great Depression, encouraged him to get a degree that would help him land a good job.
“I always wanted to go into a creative career, but my dad was like, ‘Yeah, you can look into that, but you’ve got to put food on the table and pay the bills,’” he says.
As fate would have it, Tolajian shunned the allure of investment banking on Wall Street and landed a job making $16,000 a year as a production assistant for the NBA, where he worked on profiles for some of basketball’s greatest players.
Now years later, Tolajian’s acclaimed career has offered him an opportunity to combine his creativity with his love for sports. Some of his most recent work includes the Pac-12 Network series “The Drive” which chronicles the athletic season of Pac-12 member schools. The in-depth series follows the success, failure, triumphs and letdowns of athletes and coaches as they prepare for games, play/coach in the games, and the aftermath of wins and losses both on and off the field.
In Q Ball, Tolajian’s gift for providing real life, enthusiastic and engaging drama keeps you stuck to your seat and is central to how he tells the story of the Warriors basketball team. No, not the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, but their little brothers from across the bay that carry the same nickname with enthusiasm and pride – The San Quentin Warriors. The team, which can only play home games, includes a roster of highly-skilled basketball players that could have played competitive basketball far beyond any community center, playground or high school if it had not been for life choices that landed them in prison. Harry “ATL” Smith, the team’s most promising player, is on the verge of parole and looking to realize his dream of playing in the NBA; Anthony “Ant” Ammons, who has dedicated his life sentence to mentoring younger inmates; and head coach Rafael Cuevas, who helps guide the team toward their goal of a league championship and the chance to play against the Golden State coaching staff on the hard court, are among the men who have been transformed by the teams rehabilitation program.
The documentary, with NBA superstar Kevin Durant as its executive producer, screened at the Seattle International Film Festival last weekend, portrays the inmates in an engaging manner that almost lets you forget that some of them have committed very violent crimes. They must follow the rules in order to play on the team, they must show respect towards their teammates and ultimately, they must be accountable to themselves and to the team in order to be successful.
“That was one of my goals [of the movie] to in some way break some of those stereotypes that many of us have from seeing TV shows and movies that play up a lot of the violence and scary things [that can take place in prison],” says Tolajian.
However, the film does not shy away from the fact that being in prison is not all fun and games. In one segment during filming, a fight breaks out while two of the film participants are playing chess. There were times when Tolajian and his crew would show up to film and get turned away because the prison was on lock down.
“It ain’t all fun and games in there,” says Tolajian. “San Quentin is a serious place and there are a lot of serious things that go on there, and people who have done some bad things. But the film hopes to show that if given the right opportunities and support, a lot of the men in there can evolve from the men they were to better men and people that have hopes and dreams and goals like anybody else to salvage their lives and be positive members of society.”
According to Tolajian, to talk to these men and understand where they’ve come from, how they lived and to see how they have transformed is amazing, and a story that he is excited to share with the world.
“They’re learning life lessons, teamwork, trust, basic things that were probably in short supply in a lot of these guy’s lives,” says Tolajian of the players on the team. “I saw the sport of basketball and being on this team make a direct and positive impact on who these men were and help them move forward and gain some basic skill sets and self-knowledge so that hopefully when they’re released, they will have a better chance at being successful.”
According to Tolajian, the project, which took about 9 months to shoot, almost didn’t get off the ground. He had shopped around a “sizzle real” or a trailer that he used to pitch the project to different networks. It took almost two years before he finally got a yes from Fox Sports Films under the banner of their new documentary segment called Magnify, which was looking for more contemporary stories that really showed the power of sports and how they can impact communities.
“We were just about to give up on the project,” says Tolajian. “I showed [Fox] the sizzle real and right away they said ‘this fits what we want to do.’”
Durant, who was already familiar with the team because he had attended the annual game between the front office staff of the Golden State Warriors and the San Quentin Warriors, signed on as the executive producer and things took off from there.
The documentary will air on FS1 on May 28. For Tolajian, it will be a day of reflection on how he has impacted the lives of the players, the people who watch the film and the effect that the film has had on him.
“I’ve done a lot of projects and each one of them has impacted me in some way, but I have to say, I don’t think there’s been a film or a TV show or any project I’ve worked on that really affected me as much as this one,” he said. “We were in the prisons so much and spent so much time with these guys that you just kind of get attached and that always makes the process rewarding.”
“These were the men that had opened their lives to us,” he added. “[When they watched the film] they were on the edge of their seats. They laughed at a lot of parts, they gasped at some parts, and they shed some tears at some parts…that was special for me.”
What may be most rewarding for Tolajian is knowing that his father, who died in 1995, would be proud that he pursued a career that allows him to “put food on the table” and so much more.
“He only got to see the very beginning of my career and he really sacrificed tremendously some of his own dreams to raise his family and provide for his family,” says Tolajian. “My biggest hope would be that in some way he was able to follow my career and see the projects I’ve done, and see that I always tried to tell stories that are inspirational, that are positive, and that maybe shed a light on that human condition.”
“I think he felt I had skills and talents that I was blessed to have,” he added. “I hope that he would look at my career and say that I didn’t waste them.”
If Q Ball is any indicator, Tolajian’s film-making talent has definitely not gone to waste.