Director Debra Tolchinsky’s new documentary, Fast Talk (having its Chicago première at the Gene Siskel Film Center Oct. 1), is as confounding as it is fascinating. Following Northwestern University’s defending national champion debate team for a year, Tolchinsky reveals collegiate debate as a subculture that strikes outsiders as completely bizarre. Top debaters excel by cramming as many arguments as possible into the time limit, robotically spewing out more than 400 unintelligible words per minute while entering a frighteningly trancelike state. Watching future world leaders literally foam at the mouth is disconcerting, making the protaganists so difficult to connect with that this is one of the rare competition films where it’s hard to care who wins in the end.
Tolchinsky will be on hand at the première to discuss the film, but not before she sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about salivating Harvard students, bizarre banana boxes, the state of discourse in the 21st century.
Debra Tolchinsky: I think teams started winning by pitting more arguments in the same amount of time, just flooding tons of information. Some people have said it just slowly got quicker, but I interviewed a bunch of older debaters, [and] they said it got faster when people started copying things. With Xeroxing, all of a sudden you could have more information.
AVC: So it’s been getting faster since the ’60s, but when did it start to become so fast that no mortal could understand the words?
DT: Everyone seems to have a different answer. I did interview someone who said that in the ’70s it was the first time they ever saw this, and they thought it was a joke and that it wouldn’t last. And then the team just started winning, and it began to proliferate. The kind of speed today has been going on for at least 20 years. I spoke to a Supreme Court lawyer who quit debate because of the speed.
AVC: Was debate more of an intellectual exercise back when it was more like a trial summary, where you use persuasion?
DT: I would not say the college debaters are not using persuasion …
AVC: But even if the arguments are persuasive, how can they be processed?
DT: People inside debate say that they understand it; it’s just not relevant to people outside of the subculture, and that’s an issue here. Another [issue] is should debate be more like Lincoln-Douglas, where you have to connect with people and use charisma and communicate and be understandable?
AVC: How long were you filming?
DT: I spent a year following the team.
AVC: In the 12th month, could you understand the debaters better than you could during the first month?
DT: I got to so I could understand some things, but not follow an argument. And the weirdest thing was that, at the end, they would announce the winner, and you would look at the people and have no idea who won—they were completely expressionless.
AVC: Does this attract robotic people?
DT: I think it attracts really smart people, people that are interested in going into the law, going into politics.
AVC: But how could fast talking help you in law or politics? Maybe a fast talker could deliver the craziest filibuster ever, but it seems unlikely that voters would be attracted to anyone who bludgeoned an opponent with data in a candidates’ debate.
DT: But there are other skills that would help: thinking quickly on their feet, being able to take multiple sides, being able to speak in public, being able to be extremely aggressive.
AVC: What’s up with those taped-up junkyard boxes they carry around?
DT: That’s a banana box; [it] is full of evidence. Sometimes you’re asked to show your evidence.
AVC: Do you have to pull the evidence out super quickly?
DT: No, that’s during the cross exam, where you have more time.
AVC: Explain the culture of this whimsical box. Does every team have a quirk like that?
DT: The only team that uses banana boxes is Northwestern. Usually debate teams use plastic boxes. Northwestern, [then] led by Coach Scott Deatherage, had a lot of weird things like that. [Deatherage died in December 2009. —ed.] They’d have to go to Whole Foods, get banana boxes, clean them out, and fill them with evidence. And he also didn’t allow them to have carts, which you see in the film when he’s berating the woman on the team for not being able to carry it—these things are really heavy.
AVC: The most compelling image in the film, and the thing that makes fast talk debate seem kind of repulsive, is that spitty guy.
DT: Several of them foam at the mouth, but you’re talking about the Harvard guy. His face turns almost white, his lips turn blue, and when he’s done he actually looks kind of sick, like all the blood has been drained out of his face.
AVC: And you don’t lose any debate points by looking like a gruesome zombie …
DT: No, he’s fast!
AVC: Did you have any qualms about putting this out there, letting everyone see this 21-year-old kid foam at the mouth? Because it’s so crazy when he starts doing that. It seems to be a kind of out of control.
DT: He’s an amazing debater.
AVC: But it seems unlikely that anyone outside of that scene would be convinced by any point he makes once the foam starts flying.
DT: Anytime you go into a subculture there’s, of course, tons of ethical questions, and I was very aware of that. It wasn’t making fun of these people; that wasn’t my intent, and I don’t think that’s what I’ve done with the film. But, as a filmmaker, you see the Harvard debater and you go, “Oh my god!” But he’s not the only one who foams at the mouth.
AVC: These kids are getting scholarships; schools must value this.
DT: It’s considered prestigious.
AVC: Do you think this kind of sunlight might make it less prestigious?
DT: I think you’re making a judgment. One of the guys in it told me he can’t wait to show it to his family and friends.
AVC: They are definitely doing what they do very well, I’m sure they wouldn’t be ashamed, unless that one guy doesn’t know he foams at the mouth …
DT: I’m sure he knows he foams. And he signed a release.
AVC: I’m not saying you did a hit piece. It’s just that a university boasting about its debate champions might make wealthy alumni proud and generous. But if the university said, “Look at this film of us winning,” the weird footage might turn the donors off.
DT: It seems not to. I don’t think this is that different than what’s happened in any other field. We’ve become more and more insular and only communicate with the people in our own little circle, and things become faster and faster, so I don’t know. One question I want the film to bring up is: Is this what debate should be like in America? On a larger level, this is about the kind of debates were having today.
AVC: But collegiate debating is the opposite of the debates we’re having, because in those competitions everyone is told to be able to argue both sides of the issue, where often people in the national debate refuse to hear the other side of issue.
DT: Yes, but they’re both games.