Credit: Michael Boyd

About a minute and a half into Debra Tolchinsky’s documentary Fast Talk there’s a shot of a college debater speaking so rapidly he foams at the mouth. The image is so repellent you’re unlikely to pay much attention to what he’s saying. But even if you did, you probably couldn’t understand it. Fast Talk, which makes its local premiere October 1 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, delves into the world of modern college debate, where the quantity of arguments has long since trumped the niceties of elocution. Talking a mile a minute, gasping for air between sentences, the Northwestern University debaters featured in the video make the disclaimer at the end of a pharmaceutical commercial sound like Garrison Keillor describing Lake Wobegon.

Tolchinsky, 49, who teaches film production at Northwestern, tracked the school’s legendary debate team through the 2005-’06 academic year and came away with 200 hours of footage that she edited down to a 90-minute cut. “The problem was no one could understand it,” she recalls. “In the beginning, the freak factor of the speed, you think it’s gold. But how much can an audience take of that? You can’t follow the arguments.”

By the end of the documentary’s five-year genesis she’d managed to trim it down to 56 minutes—perfect for broadcast—and reluctantly added a first-person voice-over. “I really had no intention of having my voice in the film, but people couldn’t follow it and they couldn’t relate to anybody. So eventually I realized something or someone had to be a thread-through that you could kind of hook onto.”

Fast Talk captures the Northwestern team at a particularly tough time: the previous year it had won the National Debate Tournament (for the 13th time in the tournament’s 59-year history), and the pressure of defending the title was exacerbated by the loss of a top debater, Tristan Morales, and the fact that NU would be hosting the event in 2006. Scott Deatherage, the team’s renowned coach, might well have blanched at the idea of having a filmmaker nosing around all year. But, according to Tolchinsky, he was enthusiastic about the project. “He was very open and allowed me into situations that, frankly, I was surprised he was letting me into.”

Deatherage comes across as a fiercely driven man who pushes his students to the limit. It’s shocking but unsurprising when Tolchinsky says at the end of the documentary that, three years after the shoot, he died of a heart attack at age 47.

A native of Los Angeles, Tolchinsky received a BA from the University of Southern California film school and spent several years working as a freelance editor for various Hollywood studios before she moved to Chicago, earned a BA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute, and joined the Northwestern faculty. Though she’s most concerned now with screening and landing distribution for Fast Talk, she’s also brainstorming another documentary about sleep disorders and how people try to manipulate sleep patterns to become more productive. “I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like we’re never doing enough,” she says. “And the pace of that, making it really hard to come down and ever relax.” Of course, once Fast Talk comes out on DVD, you’ll be able to watch it at a faster speed.

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