Eammon Ashton-Atkinson makes his directorial debut with Steelers, a documentary which delves into the journey of the Kings Cross Steelers, the UK’s first gay rugby team, and their travels to the Bingham Cup, which is essentially the world cup of the gay rugby. The documentary introduces us to members of the team and coaches, exploring how the inclusivity of the club was there for vital moments in their lives.
Steelers centres on three key figures from the team: Nic Evans, the team’s gay female coach, rugby fanatic Simon Jones, and drag queen/rugby player Andrew McDowell – as well as filmmaker Eammon Ashton-Atkinson delivering his own thoughts and experiences. Each of the subjects discuss insightful glimpses into the colliding worlds of sport and the LGBTQ+ experience.
Focussed more on the personalities within team and the impact of rugby on their lives, as opposed to on-the-pitch action, Steelers feels like a cathartic picture for Ashton-Atkinson who serves as the film’s narrator also. Exploring the homophobic bullying he experienced as a child and a traumatic experience of being outed after a classmate filmed a sexual encounter and shared it, there is a powerful emotional gravitas surrounding Steelers and its showcase of the healing, strength and community that can come from a team sport. Ashton-Atkinson’s personal commitment to this tale is something that is visible from the enthusiasm and heart behind the documentary showcased in the warm, intimate interviews with subjects.
Nic Evans, the team’s female coach, explores taking on the coaching role in a male dominated industry. She delivers personal anecdotes through her family’s response to her passion from rugby – particularly heartfelt discussions about her grandfather.
Player Simon Jones gives candid interview about his struggles with the coming out process and his battle with depression. Simon’s contributions capture the struggles that many in the LGBTQ+ community have with their mental health. Jones had struggled with falling for a straight friend who didn’t reciprocate his feelings, with the player showcasing an impressive sense of bravery in examining these feelings on screen. Jones also opens up about antidepressants alleviating some of these challenges within the documentary, with Steelers attempting to diffuse some of the stigma associated with this.
Final contributor Andrew McDowell’s contributions examine the preconceptions about gay men – either stereotypes as “straight-acting” or “feminine” with McDowell playing full-throttle on the rugby pitch yet working as a drag artist in the evenings. He notes: “I will be tough and brutal and kick your ass on the pitch. When I’m off the pitch I will be as flagrant and flamboyant as I want.” Steelers explores drag nights at Heaven nightclub and how the club have gone on to have a prominent role in the wider gay community.
From a technical standpoint, Steelers can suffer from an often overbearing music soundtrack, with interviews or narration overdubbed with gushingly sentimental instrumentation which can take the polish off the documentary’s other aesthetic elements.