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Sports, Spies and Socialism at Heart of ‘The Diplomat’ on ESPN
The Diplomat, co-directed by Jennifer Arnold and Senain Kheshgi, premieres this week on ESPN as part of the sports network’s Nine for IX series.
The film profiles Olympic champ Katarina Witt’s rise to world prominence from behind the Iron Curtain, in one of nine films about women athletes directed by female filmmakers, in honor of the Title IX law that requires equal opportunities for women.
Arnold (Maid of Honor, Glee: The 3D Concert Movie) and Kheshgi (Project Kashmir), both successful directors in their own right, teamed up to make The Diplomat when circumstances brought them both to ESPN, and their pitch for the documentary got an immediate “yes” from the sports network.
A longtime West Hollywood resident who now resides in Silver Lake, Arnold spoke exclusively to Goweho.com about procuring the East German skating star and their vision for the film.
“Neither of us are into sports or are even interested in sports,” Arnold says in a surprising admission. “We were both really interested in the Cold War era and the politics of Katarina’s background, the way sports was used internationally in particular in the `80s to represent entire political spectrums.”
“In the `80s was the [President] Carter Olympic boycott and the USSR boycott of the Olympics, and athletes winning gold medals was really used as a way to prove Communism or Capitalism was better than the other one. And that was a world that we were really interested in.”
The directors needed to persuade Katarina Witt to participate, Arnold says. “She knew the value of her story, so we met with her and said we just want to tell a portion of this story.”
They began with the notion that the East German ice rink would be the perfect setting for Witt’s saga.
“We thought the world of the ice rink was a great metaphor for the entire world of East Germany because it was infused with politics, it’s where all of Katarina’s sweat and tears and dreams would grow, and it was also a place where there were spies and secret police.”
Secret, behind-the-scenes maneuvering by East German authorities was a reality for everyone involved in state-sponsored sports. In what seemed like a coup for the filmmakers, they were able to secure an interview with the last president of East Germany.
“We’re really proud,” says Arnold. “He doesn’t really grant a lot of interviews.”
They also spoke to an ice skater who spied on Katarina Witt: “It was the first time that he really talked openly about that,” she says. “All the athletes were spied on and many of the athletes were asked to spy on other athletes.”
And even though Katarina Witt wasn’t impacted by Title IX legislation, the film makes the point that even an oppressive society such as East Germany’s socialist republic rewarded athletes based on their accomplishments, not their gender.
“Gender equality was leaps and bounds ahead of what was going on in the US,” Arnold says. “A socialist or communist system really is about rewarding talent…. it’s a different system than what we have here. Women and men were equal, whomever was [successful] got support. Especially in sports.”
The Nine for IX series also includes exceptional documentaries featuring WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes, coaching legend Pat Summit, and tennis pro Venus Williams.
“We’re really proud to be part of the series, I like, Tivo them every week,” says Arnold, whose film is the sixth in the series to air. “Every time I feel it’s amazing that we’re one of these movies.”
The Diplomat, Venus Vs and all of the Nine for IX films are available on iTunes. The ESPN series spotlights women athletes and was executive produced by Robin Roberts and Jane Rosenthal. Get all nine films for $7.99 (standard def) or $9.99 HD, or individually at $4.99 apiece.
Entertainment industry insider Laurie Schenden is the managing editor of Goweho.com. Formerly a columnist and feature writer at the Los Angeles Times, her interviews have been published worldwide. Schenden is also CEO of Saving Grace Films. She recently completed the documentary "An Unexpected Win, Title IX and the Pinckney Pirates," and is currently working on "Unstoppable: Icons of the 20th Century," featuring Billie Jean King, Margarethe Cammermeyer and other notable women.