Thursday, November 16, 2006

Soccer Film Festival

Since I have been busy programming movies for other film festivals this year, it was appropriate that my birthday gift was a personal film festival!! This wonderful surprise gift involved movies with soccer based themes. Instead of naming the wonderful individuals behind this gift, I will call them festival programmers :)

Initially, 7 movies were programmed to be screened over two days. But the astute festival programmers discovered that I had seen three of the films (Football Factory, Cup Final, The Goalkeeper’s anxiety at the penalty kick). So two more films (Fever Pitch, The Miracle at Bern) were added to expand the list to 6 films and stretch the film festival to 4 days. The programmers knew very little about soccer when they programmed this for me but their picks were very impressive. In fact, not only were different genres (drama, comedy, action) covered, but each movie showed how soccer ties in with the fabric of a society. On top of that, the selections covered all rungs of football, right from a boy kicking a ball for the first time to amateur & professional players leading up to the World Cup, the highest aspiration for football players. The three countries spotlighted by all the seven films were England, Germany (albeit West Germany) & Scotland.

This was a truly wonderful gift for which I am eternally grateful and I can safely say, I enjoyed every single film. So instead of rating each film, I will simply state its relevance to the beautiful game.

Day One: Wednesday, Nov 8, 2006

Fever Pitch (1997, directed by David Evans, based on Nick Hornby’s book)

It was appropriate the festival kicked off with this film. This is the original movie based on Nick Hornby’s wonderful book about an Arsenal fan. I had seen this movie a few years ago but back then I had not visited Highbury (Arsenal’s legendary old stadium). The book and film ends at the exact match when I first watched an Arsenal game – May 26, 1989 when Arsenal did the impossible and won the championship on the last day of the season against an unbeatable Liverpool team at Anfield. That game won me over and I became an Arsenal fan for good. Since then, I have exhibited some of the neurotic behaviour that Hornby (and his alter ego in the film, Colin Firth) went through while supporting Arsenal. In fact, most soccer fans (not only Arsenal fans) probably fall into the categories shown in the film – optimistic and always pessimistic. The optimistic ones always believe their team will win, no matter who the opposition. And the pessimistic believe that their team is capable of always screwing up even when their opposition is a non-league team.

This movie shows what it means to be a soccer fan and serves to highlight the difficulties men have in trying to make women understand what this game means. Plenty of soccer relevance in this film as the film shows school football, a frustrated coach, soccer vs women debates, amateur & professional football and the crazy life of a soccer fan. Also, the movie covers the dangers of all standing sections in English stadiums in the past, something which may have added to the flavour of the game in the old days but also led to some grave consequences (racism, abuse, death and fights). The all-seating arrangements that exist nowadays have made for more family-friendly game viewing. I sat in Highbury’s North end for my games in 2005, the same North end that was standing room only as shown in the film prior to 1990.

Day Two: Thursday, Nov 9, 2006

The Miracle of Bern (2003, directed by Sönke Wortmann)

A pleasant surprise! What made this viewing more enjoyable is the fact that I saw this movie after having read the wonderful book Tor! The story of German Football which lend validity to the film’s story of the 1954 World Cup. The book starts out on the morning of the 1954 World Cup final. When the first rain drops came down on a bright sunny day, the West German captain Fritz Walter knew his team would win the World Cup. This was because as the The Miracle of Bern shows the West German coach Sepp Herberger predicted that if the weather was sunny, then Hungary would win but if it rained, then the West Germans would take the Cup because a soggy pitch was Fritz Walter’s domain. And so it was….History will show that West Germany beat Hungary 3-2 to win their first every World Cup. But what was the real story behind that improbably victory? The Hungarian team of 1954 was one of the greatest teams in the history of this game yet they lost on a soggy rainy pitch to the West Germans despite thrashing them 8-3 earlier in the World Cup and leading 2-0 in the final. How could that have happened?

The film introduces a fictional element by showing part of the World Cup through the eyes of 11 year old Matthias who is on good terms with Helmut Rahn, the terrific winger who scored the winning goal in that 1954 final. Matthias looks up to Rahn as a father figure because Matthias has never met his own father. That is until Matthias’s father, Richard, returns after having spent 11 years in a Russian prison following the end of World War II. Richard is bitter from the war and is hostile towards Matthias since he never knew of his existence (he got no letters from home informing him of Matthias’ birth just after he left for Russia). Richard can no longer work in the coal mines and takes his anger out on his family. He even prevents Matthias from watching the World Cup games. Eventually, Richard comes around and teaches his son to improve his game and tries to drive him to the World Cup final because as it turns out, Matthias is Helmut Rahn’s lucky mascot (this is the film’s melodramatic fairy-tale element).

One of the neatest elements of the film is that instead of using archival footage, the filmmakers re-shot the 1954 final with similar replica jerseys and moves which led to all the goals. The movie is melodramatic and we know what the outcome will be, yet the movie’s emotional elements won me over. It shows the power of soccer to unite and bring people closer together, especially a father and a son. In that respect, this movie is similar to Fever Pitch which illustrated how the father introduced his son to the game. Miracle.. also has that dreamy quality that children undergo while trying to emulate their stars during street football games. From a historical point of view, the film also sheds light to Herberger’s famous quote “The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes. This much is fact. Everything else is theory.” We learn from the movie that these might not have been Herberger’s words and that he may have gotten them from the cleaning lady at the hotel. Fact or fiction?

Mean Machine (2001, directed by Barry Skolnick)

This was a remake of the original Hollywood film, The Longest Yard. Since I had not seen that film, I was able to enjoy this British prison soccer film without knowing the story. Ofcourse, it is easy to predict this film’s story from the outset but it still makes for fun watching. A large reason for that is Vinnie Jones who is perfectly cast for this role. Before appearing as a gangster in Guy Ritchie films, Vinnie Jones was best known for being a tough no-nonsense professional defender who made headlines (for all the right & wrong reasons) with teams such as Wimbledon and Chelsea. In the film, he plays an ex-professional footballer who is jailed for drunk driving. However, the reception he gets is chilly because he once infamously betrayed his English team by taking a bet to give away a penalty against the Germans (here is the German team again). What makes this story angle interesting and realistic is that in real life, one of Vinnie’s ex-team mates was charged for taking a bet to throw away a game.

Jones has the right look and attitude for this part and makes this an enjoyable watch. The film is packed with clichéd characters but the one who outdoes them all is Jason Statham’s character of ‘Monk’. Monk is locked up in solitary confinement because he killed 32 people by hand. He is crazy and unpredictable. Which is why he ends up being the prison soccer team’s goalkeeper! That is a true soccer joke as most real life goal-keepers are known to be either eccentric (Rene Higuita of Columbia), temperamental (Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann), bossy (Oliver Kahn) or plain philosophical (Albert Camus claimed to have learned more about life from being a goal-keeper). The big soccer match in the film is between the prison guards and the in-mates. No prizes for guessing who wins the game. But the game is not pretty football; it is tough and gritty (anti-Arsenal brand, or pro-Blackburn and pro-Bolton brand).

A lot of negative sides of the present day game are covered in this film – soccer gambling, cheating, bribing, irresponsive behavior from professional players (quite a few make the headlines nowadays for drunk driving), and negative on-field tactics. On the positive side, the film shows that a game of footie, no matter which location, can still give hope to people even if the audience is trapped in a jail cell, an office, a pub or a stadium.

Half-way through the festival

The next three films covered Scotland and soccer was only used as a sprinkling in these movies but it was an important part. It was a very good decision to program these three movies together as they had quite a few similar elements and gave a sharp picture of Scottish life.

Day Three: Friday, Nov 10, 2006

My Name is Joe (1998, directed by Ken Loach)

Soccer only truly features at the start of this film when Joe (played superbly by Peter Mullan) drives his soccer team for another amateur game. His team are plain terrible. In fact, they have only won one game in their entire history. But the lads have fun playing the game. It helps them forget their pain and suffering, be it poverty, domestic issues or even addictions. The team calls themselves West Germany (the German angle is evident here as well) and model themselves on the 1974 winning team. They can’t afford new soccer kits so half-way through the film, they steal a box full of shiny new yellow Brazilian jerseys. This petty crime lights up their faces and they find a new zest in continuing their losing streak..

What makes the limited soccer scenes so important is that they convey some of the reasons why men are drawn towards the game. Sometimes, the game offers an escape, just like any addiction. The game gives a chance for the men to bond, hang out, act childish and shut the rest of the world out (which includes their family as well). Besides the soocer angle, this is a powerful story of the recovering alcoholic Joe and his attempt to balance unemployment, love with Sarah (played by the equally impressive Louise Goodall) and trying to sort out issues with the local gangster. A wonderful film which shows how a little thing can provide hope and at the same time, one mistake can destroy everything.

The Acid House (1998, directed by Paul McGuigan)

Three short films make up this movie and all three interesting stories are written by Irvine Welsh.

1) The Granton Star Case: Boab is having a terrible day. He finds himself kicked out of his amateur soccer team and replaced by the new stud, Tambo. He returns home only to find out that his parents can’t stand him living with them anymore and kick him out of the house. He phones his girlfriend, hoping she will move in with him but she breaks up with him. And to top it off, he gets fired from his job. So what’s a lad to do? Drink down one’s worries with a pint ofcourse! While he is hating his life, he meets God in a pub. God explains that Boab has wasted his life and is nothing more than an insignificant bug. So to take revenge, God turns Boab into a bug (kafka, where are you?). The new bug goes about to satisfy himself by taking revenge on all the people who made his life miserable. At the end, he accomplishes his goal and as the camera heads towards the sky, we see Boab transformed back into a human. Will his life become better? Probably not, but I am sure he had fun in taking his revenge. Atleast, he will get his place back in the soccer team because he killed Tambo who was shagging his girlfriend.

2) The Soft Touch: This one is the most emotional of the lot and is the hardest to watch. Johnny is married to the flirtatious Catriona. Right from the outset, their marriage seems doomed. But Johnny is just too nice to notice. He takes care of their new born baby with the utmost of love while his wife could not care less. Trouble really starts when Larry moves upstairs to Johnny’s place and messes with Johnny’s life. First Larry takes Catriona away, makes love to her and makes Johnny listen downstairs. Next, Larry starts taking electricity, tv and other items from Johnny’s apartment. Johnny can’t do anything but he clings onto his baby daughter. Larry is a thug, but a soccer fan nonetheless. Watching him gives a face to those hooligans that have tarnished this game’s reputation. In a cruel scene, Larry kicks Johnny for fun, because he can. We watch helplessly as Johnny tries to live, just wishing he would do something about his situation. But what can he do? He is a soft person and that is the price he has to pay for his decency in a cruel, unforgiving society.

3) The Acid House: Coco is a soccer fan who in a bizarre drugged up night, exchanges souls with a newborn rich baby. After the switch, the new baby speaks profanities while Coco is left to act like a baby trapped in an adult body. In the final scene, the two exchange places in a pub packed with soccer fans. Just before the switch, Coco’s girlfriend tells Coco that soccer is only for people who don’t grow up and since he is an adult, he should not bother with the game. But right after the switch, Coco immediately starts jumping up and cheering with his soccer mates. An interesting way to end this short! It does play into the popular attitude that being a soccer fan is a childish activity and it is not proper behaviour for grown men to be drunk and cheer for a soccer team.

Wow. Three very different shorts which tackle themes of revenge, violence vs non-violence and pure drunken stupor! The first short is all about revenge – a devious mind can find ways to take revenge, even if the mind is trapped inside a fly’s body. The second short is the hardest to watch but it forms a perfect pairing with My Name is Joe and shows no matter what stand one takes against a thug, one might end up on the losing end. In My Name is Joe, Joe finds out that taking a forceful stand against gangsters only results in causing more damage and being trapped in more complex traps. Whereas in The Soft Touch, when Johnny takes no stand, he is pushed around and treated as non-existent. He might as well being the bug in The Granton Star Case. And the title short (The Acid House) is both funny and quirky at times (example: an adult in a baby’s body wanting to be breast fed) and overall marks a fitting end. All the main characters in the three shorts could have been following the same game (the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup) and yet each go about their life differently. Not all soccer fans are drunken hooligans or immature adults as the media shows. Some of them are, but the rest are average blokes just trying to watch a game.

And now for the finale!! Drum-roll….

Day Four: Saturday, Nov 11, 2006

Gregory's girl (1981, directed by Bill Forsyth)

Gregory is plain lazy and too laid back to care for anything. He plays as a striker for his school soccer team but has not scored a goal in over 8 games. Safe to say, his team have lost all those games. But Gregory is not concerned. He believes he is going through a slump and the goals will come. His coach is going crazy and decides to take action. He benches Gregory and goes in search for ‘new blood’ to provide spark for the team. The best candidate he gets is Dorothy, a girl. She points out that the coach never stated in his selection posters that a girl could not join the team. So the coach is forced to take Dorothy and installs Gregory as a goal-keeper. But that decision does not improve things because Gregory is a terrible goal-keeper. He can’t keep the ball out of the net and he acts even more immaturely when Dorothy scores a goal -- whenever she scores, boys from both teams try to give her a kiss. Gregory is in love with Dorothy but is too shy to do anything about it. He gets ample advice from his 10 year old sister, who acts more like a 14 year old. In the end, Gregory asks Dorothy out and she accepts. But she never shows up for their date. In fact, three of her friends show up in turns and he gets 3 separate dates out of it. Who will be Gregory’s girl? He himself does not know but by the end, he has learned a thing or two about himself as well. There is hope that he will mature and become a better adult and hopefully a better soccer player.

A perfect way to end this special festival! This light hearted coming of age movie marked a peaceful end to a festival that literally started on a fever pitch.


Pacze Moj said...

I've only seen two of these, but what a great idea for a festival!

I remember a few others: Victory, with a bunch of real-life football stars, another whose title I can't remember, but about monks trying to watch the World Cup, a new German documentary about the German '06 team, and one based on Peter Handke's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, by Wim Wenders, I think.

Sachin G. said...

Yeah that is what I thought too. It was a bday surprize for me complete with my own personal festival brochure as well.

I have seen Victory as well, which had Stallone, Caine plus Pele and other soccer stars. The movie you are thinking of about the monks is The Cup. I have seen The Goalie's anxiety as well. Initially, that was one of the movies in the lineup as well but since I had seen it, it was removed.

Good to hear from you again Pacze. It has been a while.