Sponsored Project

Against Goliath – Lucia Small, Ilisa Barbash

Against Goliath

Filmmaker: Lucia Small, Ilisa Barbash
Status: In Production

At a time when our nation’s most powerful women leaders — Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren — are being silenced, AGAINST GOLIATH tells the compelling story of high school co-ed debate team’s female members as they fight to have their voices heard in this male dominated activity, and crack the first major glass ceiling in their young lives.

Filmed over three years, AGAINST GOLIATH focuses on the female debaters of the nationally ranked public high school debate team “Newton South” of Newton, Massachusetts. Most winning teams are from private high schools with full-time paid coaches whereas Newton South has a part-time volunteer parent coach, and team members who coach each other. Several debaters of Newton South are first generation Americans, with native languages like Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu or Ukrainian, who will likely become the next generation of leaders — doctors, lawyers, engineers, and politicians. They share an insatiable curiosity about world issues. They throw themselves into each month’s debate topic — reparations to African Americans, the refugee crisis, the deployment of anti-missile systems in South Korea. Along the way, they learn critical thinking skills, vital research skills, how laws are passed, enforced and overturned, and how the democratic process works.

The viewer is dropped into this intensely competitive, demanding extracurricular activity and observes teammates developing and refining their speaking, building their confidence, and debating in regional and national tournaments, while struggling with how to present themselves in a world dominated by males. The film raises crucial questions about gender (race and class) bias and representation in America today. Like national politics, high school debate is male dominated — more males than females debate, reach finals, and win. According to a study conducted by Harvard University student Daniel Tartakovsky, “women are about 4 percentage points less likely than men to win preliminary debate rounds… Moreover, the gap appears to be much larger in rounds 1 and 2 of a tournament than in other preliminary rounds…” (“Gender Disparities in Competitive High School Debate,” May 9, 2016).

As the girls of the Newton South team learn to become better debaters, they confront bias head on. Debate prepares them for a future that is less likely to listen to them than their male colleagues. What do they learn along the way, what does it cost them, what how might their defiance impact our nation’s future?


Barbash and Small first met at the Flaherty Seminar in 2008 when Lisa was completing post-production on SWEETGRASS (co-created with Lucien Castaing Taylor) and Lucia was distributing THE AXE IN THE ATTIC (co-created with Ed Pincus). Despite their different approaches to filmmaking, Small and Barbash connected artistically and began supporting each others’ endeavors until 2015 when they teamed up Against Goliath. Since the project’s inception, Anna Graham has been an integral part of the team as sound recordist and associate editor.