December 7, 2023

Fast Talk: The high speed debating documentary

When words leave you breathless…

Debating has changed since I was at school. Fast Talk, a 56 minute documentary directed by Debra Tolchinsky, tracks the Northwestern University debate team as it tries for a second consecutive championship. But these debates are not conducted in the dulcet tones of the English public schoolboy. Nowadays debaters talk so fast – up to 500 words per minute – that their arguments are unintelligible and inconsequential to a non-debate audience.

Why is this? Clearly there are benefits to fast-talking – more arguments can be presented in a shorter amount of time. But is there a dark side?  Has debate morphed from an academic activity meant to train young minds into an activity meant to train winners regardless of whether or not they know how to communicate, connect or persuade?

Regardless, as the film shows, there is much to admire about the present state of debate:  legendary Coach Scott Deatherage cares deeply about his team. The debaters are also very committed to their activity and very emotional about their losses.  Indeed some viewers have responded to Fast Talk as a sports film as it depicts a nail-biting competition along the lines of Spellbound, focussing on strong characters, including Deatherage but also Josh Branson, the intense team star who is trying to repeat his previous victory, and Noah Chestnut, Branson’s new debate partner, who struggles with being overshadowed.

At a broader level, is what has happened to debate a microcosm of what has happened in many other arenas in the world? We are increasingly pressured to achieve more in less time and often health is sacrificed in favor of rewards whether it be trophies, fame or money.

Debra Tolchinsky and two student cameramen shot over 200 hours of footage over a period of five years. The film has won Best Doc at La Femme International Film Festival and a gold reel award at the Nevada Film Festival.

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