• Film

From One Extreme to Another: Netflix Sports Doc Shows the World as Our “Human Playground”

It is not often that we see a big Hollywood star attach his name to an unknown filmmaker from one of the smallest countries in Europe. But Idris Elba didn’t have to think twice when the Belgian photographer Hannelore Vandenbussche pitched her six-part sports documentary to him. Human Playground showcases people across the globe who participate in some of the most unique forms of play and extreme sports – from reindeer races for kids in Finland to brutal stick fights in Ethiopia.


Vandenbussche was doing a photo project about tribes when she realized that everywhere on earth people are participating in sports and play. Reasons to do so range from age-old rituals like the war game Donga to straight-up million-dollar businesses like pigeon racing. “I have traveled a lot, mainly to meet tribes,” she told the Belgian radio station Radio 2. “I got really inspired by what these tribes do when it comes to sports and play. Men in Ethiopia go stick fighting and sometimes bash each other’s heads in. But they do it to win a woman’s heart.”


After she had financed the pilot with the help of one other producer, the two were able to sign a deal with the streaming platform Netflix. Human Playground’ is narrated by Idris Elba, directed by Tomas Kaan and written by Maarten Hoedemaekers. Vandenbussche explained to Radio 2 that she was able to get in touch with the British actor by reaching out to a couple of industry people within her small network. “I don’t have a lot of connections in the film industry, so I really had to get out of my comfort zone to make it happen.”

Impressed by her pitch, Elba set up a meeting at the Netflix headquarters to sign onto the project. After having seen the first teaser trailer, Idris said: “I don’t like it. I love it! I’m in!” the Belgian native revealed during her interview with the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. “We met him in his trailer while we were shooting. Both the book and series will be made available in 193 countries, and if everything goes well, we will most likely get renewed for a second series.”

“This documentary, this team, literally widens my point of view on sports, on being an athlete, widens my perspective on endurance and what human beings can do, what they’re capable of,” Elba told People Magazine ahead of the release on Netflix. “And so if people are watching this at home and going, Whoa. I struggle just to get to the gym, that’s okay.”

The first episode focuses on four extraordinary humans who willingly push their minds and bodies to the limit in order either to learn more about themselves or to prove what they are capable of. There’s Amy, who lost her leg after being hit by a car. She wants to partake in the most painful marathon in the world, the Marathon des Sables, taking place in the Sahara Desert in Southern Morocco. Each year, over a thousand runners participate, but last time, only 40 made it to the finish line.


Then there’s Matthieu, a Frenchman who runs a cattle farm with his wife Caroline. He’s practicing for La course Landaise, a form of cow fighting in the south of Europe. The rules are simple: all Matthieu has to do is face the charging cow and try to come out unscathed. “We go searching for adrenaline you can’t find in other sports,” Matthieu says in a televised interview. “We are playing with our lives. And that’s what makes it beautiful.”

Meanwhile, in the north of France, professional Dutch cyclist Ellen van Dijk is getting ready for the first all-female Paris-Roubaix cycle race. 129 women will participate in the dangerous race. Her worst enemy? The ancient cobblestones. “You can break your ribs pretty easily. That’s difficult, but you can still race,” van Dijk says casually. “You should never give up. Push stoically from start to finish. Push through!”

Dutch ice free-diver Kiki Bosch shows that extreme sports can also come in the form of a highly personal journey. She dives under the ice in sub-zero temperatures, a method created by a hardy athlete named Wim Hof, to become happy, healthy and strong. “A few years ago, I got sexually assaulted. And I really couldn’t handle that,” she explains on screen. “I literally just thought like, “Okay, I’ll give this a shot. I can always kill myself tomorrow.”

Human Playground is streaming on Netflix. The photo book “Human Playground” was published last month. Vandenbussche’s first book, “Before They Pass Away: the stories behind the photos” became a bestseller in the Netherlands, is currently in its third edition and was recently published in English.