Marius Markevicius could say that the story of The Other Dream Team is in his blood.
Born in Los Angeles but from a Lithuanian background, Markevicius was immersed in Lithuanian culture growing up, even spending weekends at Lithuanian Saturday school.
Also a huge basketball fan, Markevicius grew up admiring both American and Lithuanian athletes.
He can still remember when he was 12 years old and the Soviet Union beat the U.S. basketball team at the 1988 Olympic Games. Looking at a photo in the newspaper the next day, Markevicius saw a photo of four of the five starting playing of the Soviet Union’s team -- and they were all Lithuanian.
“No one had any concept of what comprised the Soviet Union. They were all just enemies, they were all just communists, they were all just an evil empire. That kind of hurt. It was like everyone was angry at these Lithuanians. And it stuck in my head even as a little kid,” Markevicius tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Four years later, at the Barcelona Games, the world was a changed place, with Lithuania an independent nation. The basketball team went on to beat the Former USSR’s team to win the bronze medal.
While most Americans know about the U.S. Dream Team, who won the gold at the 1992 Games, Markevicius -- who has produced several films including 2011’s Like Crazy -- says that he’s always wanted to make a film about the Olympians from Lithuania, who fulfilled the dreams of a new nation that year.
And so, The Other Dream Team came to life two decades later. The powerful documentary -- which opens in theaters on Sept. 28 -- traces nearly a century of Lithuania’s history of basketball -- which is the most popular sport in the country. It chronicles four star players who struggled under Soviet rule, and then went on to become symbols of Lithuania's independence movement, and -- with help from the Grateful Dead -- triumphed at the Barcelona Olympics to win the bronze medal.
The project took Markevicius three years, traveling all over the world to interview the Lithiuanian players and others who crossed their path. Markevicius -- who did all the interviews in Lithuanian -- says the players were surprisingly honest about their families’ struggles under the oppressive Soviet government.
“They were hammered so hard to not say anything and to be careful about what you say or you could be in trouble. You could end up in prison, or your family could have problems, so it takes awhile to get over that,” says Markevicius. “And now I think there’s a point where they know they can open up and speak their mind and there’s no lingering fears or doubts.”
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Sundance 2012 Preview: 'The Other Dream Team'
Markevicius credits the passing of enough time for allowing the players to reflect accurately on their journey to the Barcelona Games.
“I was surprised how much and quickly they were willing to open up,” he says. “Lithuanian camera crews and people that we worked with, at the end of some of those interviews, they would say, ‘He has never said that type of thing on camera ever.’”
One of the most powerful storylines in the documentary is the surprising story of a young athlete named Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian basketball player is followed as he hopes to make the NBA draft and change his destiny forever, an opportunity that wouldn’t have been available to him back at the time before the Other Dream Team.
“I was looking at the day he was born, and had an epiphany that this guy and his generation of kids were born the year of the Lithuanian independence,” he says. “When you compare his experience versus the generation before, it’s pretty unbelievable how much has changed in a short amount of time. The doors are open."
Markevicius recently returned to the U.S. after celebrating the Lithuanian premiere of the film, where the whole 1992 Olympic basketball team reunited for the event.
He plans next to take a turn directing a scripted feature, and is currently shopping around a few different projects.
“I’m a little concerned if I can be as passionate about another documentary as this one,” he says. “It’s so personal to me, and you have to devote so many years of time -- it’s a hard choice.”
The Other Dream Team opens in theaters in the U.S. on September 28.
Email: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford