HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2016-17

Go behind the scenes of Fiji’s incredible journey to Olympic gold

‘Sevens from Heaven’ documentary filmmaker Bruce Southwick chronicles the every day lives of the Fijian players, culminating in the Pacific islanders’ success at the Rio Games, where they cemented their status as legends of the game

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 3:27pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 April, 2017, 10:58pm

Bruce Southwick was in the Fiji team van on the way to a training session before the Las Vegas Sevens when Pio Tuwai, who was in the next seat, hugged him. The strapping sevens forward fell asleep and used Southwick as a pillow.

“He put his arms around me and gave me a big hug,” said photographer and filmmaker Southwick. “He then fell asleep in the van and just about crushed me through the door. I didn’t have the heart to wake him up and had cramps in my legs.”

Tuwai’s hug was symbolic of just how close Southwick was to Fiji players. Indeed, he was embraced by all of the players, including revered coach Ben Ryan, allowing the New Zealand-born journalist to shoot intimate and gritty footage for his documentary “Sevens from Heaven” that chronicled the Fiji team’s journey to Olympic Games gold in Rio de Janeiro last year.

Southwick, 47, said he was inspired to follow the Fiji team after the arrival of Englishman Ryan as coach, and he admitted he needed to convince Ryan and the players that his intentions were genuine.

Watch: Sevens from Heaven

“Basically, I’ve been following Fiji rugby since 2007 in 15s and sevens,” said Southwick. “Ben Ryan came along and fixed our kick-off and line-out and straight away I thought this guy must be pretty smart, so I followed the team for three years leading up to the Rio Olympics.

“At first, as in anything, you have to earn their trust, but he’s a good judge of character and he saw that I was friends with the players in the team and allowed me further and further into their world to the point where before Rio I was staying in the team hotel for a week. That’s how close I got.”

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The documentary is 17 and a half minutes long and has had more than 370,000 views since it was put up at the end of November.

It opens with a scene of the daunting, steep sand dunes beside a beach in Fiji, where the players would run up several times during a training session.

The film also delves into the everyday lives of players and fans as they look ahead to the Rio Games, where Fiji won gold for their first and only Olympic medal.

Southwick, who grew up on the islands and considers himself Fijian, said the one trait that makes Fijian players different is their humility.

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“They are such humble guys,” he said. “I’d be carrying my camera gear and they would help me out. If they had a muffin or an apple, they would snap one in half and give me some.

“They are just such genuine human beings and Ben took them to Olympic heights. You couldn’t ask for nicer people.”

Watch: Sevens from Heaven trailer

Southwick said his dream of chronicling Fiji’s Olympic odyssey was helped by a chance meeting with public relations executive Anthony Scammell, of Hill & Knowlton – the company handling the account of World Sevens Series sponsor HSBC.

“I came out to one of the public events for the Hong Kong Sevens and got in the lift and met this guy,” he said. “We got chatting and I told him I was looking to do a story on Fiji and it all went from there.

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“World Rugby and especially Hong Kong, [Hong Kong Rugby Union public relations man] Sean Moore allowed me to do changing room stuff and get some really good raw footage that no one had ever seen before.”

Southwick praised the role of coach Ryan in helping Fiji to the Olympic gold medal and the Hong Kong Sevens title earlier that year. He said the Englishman reached into the hearts of the Fijians and encouraged them to play their own game.

“Sevens is our national sport and our players would say they were born to play this and they were made for the Olympics,” said Southwick. “With that there was a lot of pressure but they play so calm and so Fijian.

“Ben came along and he is the opposite of colonialism. He made us better Fijians and made us play like we normally do. They smile, they run, they are not overly tense. They use angles, they use depth and their talent.

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“Ben said some cool stuff like when they are under stress, revert back to what you know. Other teams play structures that are not natural and we play natural, so when we are fatigued we play what we understand. It might be unnatural to others but for us, it is natural.”

Southwick said one of the most touching moments in the creation of his documentary was when Ryan showed it to the team during their Olympic preparations in Chile.

“I had prepared something before the Olympics and when Ben saw it he cried,” said Southwick. “So he asked me to show what I had to the team. We weren’t allowed to launch it then, but I showed everything I had up until then.

“The captain, Osea Kolinisau, said he was nervous about the prospect of carrying the flag for Fiji at the opening ceremony, but after watching the footage, he said he was ready and that melted me.”

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While Olympic success is the ultimate glory for the people of Fiji, Southwick said it would be wrong to dilute the importance of the Hong Kong Sevens in the lives of Fijian people.

“The Hong Kong Sevens to Fijians is like those religious people who go to Jerusalem to touch the wall,” he said. “You can’t imagine the magnitude and depth of just how the game is followed in Fiji. Whether it’s a grandma or kid, everybody follows the game and the Hong Kong Sevens is a major part of it.

“I think the Olympics overtook Hong Kong when sevens was introduced, but even the World Cup is not as important as the Hong Kong Sevens. When I was a little kid, we never had TV and televisions were especially brought into Fiji to broadcast the Hong Kong Sevens.”

Southwick said he has enough footage to lengthen the documentary and talks are underway on a possible Hollywood movie about Fiji’s gold medal-winning team.