On a day when the Champions League knockout rounds start, I wanted to draw your attention away briefly from the stadium lights to a marvelous new soccer documentary by four young Americans that I saw a sneak preview of on Monday. The film is called Pelada--the Brazilian term for pickup soccer--and it follows two former college standouts (Duke's Gwendolyn Oxenham and Notre Dame's Luke Boughen) as they visit 25 countries in search of pickup games and the stories of the people who play them.
The movie, which debuts at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Tex., on March 14, is a testament to the power of the world's game to dissolve the boundaries of gender, language and culture. Armed with a ball and a thirst for adventure, the Americans bribe their way into a Bolivian prison game, play for money in a Nairobi slum tournament and test the limits of Iranian authorities when Oxenham joins an all-male game in Tehran.
But what elevates Pelada from a cute highlight travelogue to something more resonant is the filmmakers' ability to find compelling stories and earn the trust of their interview subjects. "Once you play a game with someone, interview doesn't seem like the appropriate word," says Oxenham. "There's this level of intimacy that you don't get if you don't play soccer. Every place we went, you're then invited into their homes. Everyone's mother wants to cook for you."
"[Playing soccer] would change the situation from being an outsider having an interview with them to having a conversation with a friend," adds Boughen.
The result is a film that combines eye-popping cinematography (by co-directors Rebekah Fergusson and Ryan White) with human stories: the dreams of a teenage Brazilian girl nicknamed Ronaldinha; a lunchtime kickabout among workers building the Cape Town World Cup stadium; and an Italian writer who pens love poems to the sport. A tense game between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem reveals the benefits (and very real challenges) that come with the sport.
Boughen and Oxenham are also clearly good players, and a running thread is the reaction in male-dominated soccer cultures to a woman who's eager to join them on the field. "It was funny because Luke would score three goals and nobody really cared because everyone can see he's a good [male] soccer player, but all I would have to do was a little pivot and everyone freaked out," says Oxenham. "There was very little negative reaction to me, except for maybe in Italy, where in a couple pickup games it was like, 'Who is this woman?' In Iran they passed the ball to me more than they did in any other country, whether I was in a good position or not, which was interesting to me."
The filmmakers financed their project by piecing together grants and contributions, but they're still raising money to cover costs after spending around $250,000 on the project. While they have done a deal with PBS International for the international rights, they're hoping that the buzz from the South by Southwest Film Festival and others (they have applied to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) will lead to a distribution deal with a U.S. studio or television channel.
For now, though, they're excited about their film finally making its public debut. "It's surreal," Oxenham says. "You spend three years and you've got 400 hours of footage and getting it down to 80 or 90 minutes tops, it feels like you're killing babies left and right. But it's great to see it shaping up into the thing that you always imagined from the beginning."
Yet being accepted into a major film festival isn't the only news for Oxenham and Boughen. After crisscrossing the globe together, they're getting married in June. Part of their honeymoon may involve a screening of Pelada in Cape Town during the World Cup.
You can find more information about Pelada (including a movie trailer and tax-deductible donations) at www.pelada-movie.com.
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