A still from "I'm just here for the Riot." A still from “I’m just here for the Riot.” (Copyright Tijana Martin 2021/supplied by ESPN.)

The latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary covers an unusual subject that’s more around sports than on sports themselves. That would be the 2011 riot in Vancouver, B.C. following the Canucks’ loss in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.

I’m Just Here For The Riot, directed by Vancouver filmmakers Kathleen Jayme (known for Finding Big Country and The Grizzlie Truth) and Asia Youngman (known for This Ink Runs Deep and N’xaxaitkw), premieres Tuesday night on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. (It will be available on ESPN+ afterwards, and will premiere on TSN in Canada on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern.)

The documentary covers a lot of ground, touching on the lead-up to the riot, what actually happened, and the aftermath, including the social media shaming and legal consequences for many participants. And it’s a notable look at the complicated dimensions of that event. As someone who lived in the Vancouver area at the time, this was both a thoughtful look back at elements I had seen and one that offered new perspectives on what happened that night and in the following years.

A remarkable element of I’m Just Here For The Riot is the amount of footage and images from the day in question. Youngman and Jayme weave together video and audio from a wide variety of sources, from cellphone cameras (far from as advanced in 2011 as they are now) to media reports, and they smartly intercut those with interviews from all sides. Perhaps most notable are some of the interviews with actual rioters. But also included are fans who tried to intervene, media who covered it (both from the sports side and the news side), the man behind a Facebook page dedicated to identifying rioters, the former Vancouver police chief, and a police detective who was on the streets at the time. And maybe the key points here come from one fan’s comment early on, “At the end of the day, we’re all capable of anarchy,” and from another’s closing thought: “Have you ever done anything wrong?”

There’s an incredibly difficult line to walk with a project like this, especially when it comes to those interviews of rioters. They have relevant perspectives to share on why they did what they did and what happened to them afterward, but a documentary that overly took their side would be poorly received by those who weren’t involved but were affected by their actions. On the other hand, a documentary that simply vilified rioters would seem unnecessary 13 years later, and would fit in with some of the problematic piling on that happened after the riot and perhaps cause further impacts to those who did agree to talk about this. Jayme told Noah Strang of the Vancouver-based Daily Hive last fall that they wanted all the perspectives possible, and wanted to make sure this didn’t cause further trouble:

“We wanted to make sure that we were talking to law enforcement, to people who were there that night, people who were there as bystanders, people who were filming things who didn’t riot, people who did riot,” Jayme told Daily Hive.

The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary even features interviews with rioters, some of whom chose to remain anonymous.

“This was a very traumatic experience, and we didn’t want to do any more damage, so we’re very grateful for those that did come forward,” the co-director continued. “There are some people who still wish to remain anonymous, and both types of participation Asia and I think are super brave.”

Overall, I’m Just Here For The Riot largely succeeds in walking that line and balancing those inputs. Rather than offer definitive judgments on any of the rioters involved and if the subsequent public shaming and losses they faced (in addition to official legal judgments) were fair or not, it offers perspectives. The interviewed rioters admit to what they did, show remorse for it, and generally seem to accept their legal punishments.

But some question, if the online abuse and further fallout they took was fair, even with claims like “The mobs on the internet were no better than the people in the riot.” And there are some people interviewed here who didn’t commit violent or illegal acts, but took abuse (including death and rape threats) for being identified as present in photos. An interview with author/filmmaker Jon Ronson (known for The Men Who Stare At Goats book and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed) is particularly interesting there, discussing how this was one of the first riots widely captured on cellphones and social media, and how the backlash here was a new thing.

Amidst all that, though, the perspectives of the Facebook page creator, the police representatives, and others impacted by this riot’s effects on the city are there too. Viewers can analyze all of those sources and come to their own conclusions on how the aftermath played out, and those may differ. And that’s a smart approach for a documentary like this; this is more geared to getting viewers to think critically about this event than to present any one point of view as definitive, and it accomplishes that well.

There are some clever touches to this as well. One is the creation of an exhibit featuring images and video clips from the riot, and then footage of some key interviewees walking through it, interacting with those objects and commenting on them. That’s a smart way into this and provides a useful distinction from the straight interviews. And with those straight interviews, it’s notable that some of the rioters pair their words with images of their lives now, not just leaving them as talking heads.

There are also interesting debates here about the potential role of the media in impacting this riot. Fan Chris McClelland, who (with Dean Seskin, also interviewed) was credited as a Good Samaritan for intervening to protect a fan who was trying to defend store windows and then was attacked, says “The news and every TV station in town had been saying ‘Is there going to be a riot?’ It’s almost like there is only two inevitabilities; we hoist the Cup, or we riot.” Seskin adds “I think the media played a huge role in it.”

The documentary also presents newspaper clippings from before the riot raising that possibility. And a really notable interview is with Trevor Holness, who was 18 in 1994 when there was a Vancouver riot after the Canucks lost Game 7 of that year’s Stanley Cup Final, spent time in jail afterward, was in the arena for Game 7 this time, and had the reaction afterward of “When I saw the smoke, I knew, ‘Here we go again.’ I was really disappointed.”

But claiming this was a media-caused riot also wouldn’t be fully accurate. Yes, even the police raised concerns to the media about their reflections on the 1994 riot ahead of Game 7 here. But simply writing or talking about past bad behavior is not necessarily an invitation to it. And CBC’s Ian Hanomansing offers some notable pushback there, describing a call he got from the police before this on showing past riot footage, and saying “I don’t buy that. The whole point of the story was this was a bad thing.”

At any rate, this is a remarkable documentary. It’s not going to be for everyone: this really is about something that happened around sports, not an on-ice or on-field event. (There are notable sports impacts that drew out of this, though, including for star athletes like interviewee Alex Prochazaka, who lost his biking sponsorships after he was identified as participating here.) And it’s much more about sociological implications and fan behavior than most of the 30 for 30 entries (although it is notable that the series did previously dive into somewhat similar waters with their much-lauded 2014 look at the Hillsborough tragedy).

But the implications and behavior discussed here go well beyond hockey and could extend to any sort of sports fandom, or any sort of mass gathering. So this could be of interest from those perspectives as well. And for anyone looking for a thoughtful discussion of how a riot like this can happen and what the reaction to it can mean, I’m Just Here For The Riot is worth your time.

*The one extremely small quibble here is that while the documentary shows Richard Lam’s famous photo of the mid-riot kiss multiple times amidst various collections of riot images, it doesn’t include a discussion of that memorable moment. But ESPN did previously offer excellent coverage of that from Greg Wyshynski here, so that’s worth a read for those interested in that angle.

I’m Just Here For The Riot premieres on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, ESPN+ after that, and TSN at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.