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By James Teitelbaum | March 30, 2009

The first thing that we see in the documentary “Debate Team” are serious college debate team members who are trained to speak at impossibly fast speeds in order to make as many arguments as possible during their allotted time. These people speak at speeds so fast that it takes special training to understand them; to the average listener the debaters are speaking gibberish. This isolates them in their activity since few observers can seriously appreciate what they are doing. Then they isolate themselves even further: the debaters are very serious and extremely competitive people with nothing on their minds but winning. Most of these kids sacrifice their education, social lives, and even hygiene in order to argue with each other at superhuman speeds.

In between interviews with Michael Miller, a defeated debater from decades past, we meet the modern day teams from University of California Berkeley, Michigan State University, University of West Georgia, and Harvard. There are a few peripheral teams that present their arguments at intelligible speeds, and a few alternative teams that idolize the Native American trickster myths, or who present their arguments as gangsta raps or as rather skillfully performed a capella pop songs. But these are the exceptions, and for the most part we must resort to the thoughtfully provided subtitles in order to understand what the debaters are saying. The key players are interviewed at some length about their avocations but spend most of their camera time trashing each other. For people so skilled in erudition, none of them seem to really be able to articulate why any of this activity is important to them.

The second half of the film follows the teams as they advance to the 2005 finals. The national finals are held for audiences of only a dozen or two people in a mostly empty hotel conference room, and the arguments always seem to end in thermonuclear destruction of the world. It is fascinating to observe these kids putting so much of themselves into doing something that puts so much distance between themselves and the people around them, and all to win or lose a national championship held in front of virtually no audience at all.

Who is this activity for, and why? Why do these kids need to compete so fiercely in a language that no one can understand, arguing points that no one will hear or be influenced by? Is this about intellect or insane skills in diction? Can we root for one team or the other when none of their points of view are clear to us, the layman? Do they have points of view, or do they robotically argue as they are told? And why can’t University of Houston alumnus Michael Miller let go of his crushing 1969 defeat against Harvard?

Like the debates themselves, many questions are asked, and some of the answers are open for interpretation, or for debate.

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