The filmmaker on a global journey and the fight to make sure you see it.
You’ve probably heard of the soccer documentary Pelada, and probably wished it had been you who made it. If not the travel alone, than how about the film? To have that document for the future–stories for the grandkids–and the pride of success and awards. We should all be so lucky. In a sense.
When one of the filmmakers, Gwendolyn Oxenham, first wrote me, I congratulated her on the success of the film; it seemed like every time I updated Twitter someone was talking about how good it was, or how excited they were to see it.
“Oh I’m glad you think it’s a success,” she replied. “Sometimes I don’t know. Great to hear you think our film has been successful in the soccer world; as someone who spends my days cold-calling clubs (”Hi, my name is Gwendolyn and I made this movie about pickup… you should come to our screening…”), it’s hard to believe it. None of the coaches have ever heard of the movie, and I’m rebuffed in the same way you’d get rid of someone trying to sell you insurance.”
I should have known better. First, Twitter’s knowledge and reach is only as great, as wide as your followers, and anyway, the telling signs are plastered all over TIAS. The reality of the soccer reporting, the soccer storytelling world is hardly one of easy success, and the stories of the hardships and compromises of those who toil away in the fields are at TIAS like midfielders for the men’s national team: plenty to choose from, all about the same, take your pick.
I should have known an independent documentary about soccer was not going to be easy to make, much less get out to the public (marketing is a hell of a drug). So I asked Gwendolyn to share her creation story…
The Making of Pelada
by Gwendolyn Oxenham
Over the past three years, we slept in twenty-five countries, reversed down two main highways, got mugged in Argentina, attacked by a baboon in Kenya, detained in Israel, and reported to the government in Iran—all in the process of making a documentary about pickup soccer around the world.
Luke and I are has-beens. He was a center midfielder for Notre Dame who scored big goals in big games. I was the youngest Division I athlete in the history of the NCAA, a starter and leading goal scorer for Duke at sixteen-years-old. By twenty-two, our careers were over. We tried the whole find-another-life thing: Luke worked with billboards and I lived on a writing grant. But we still played at night, doing one-v-ones in the parking lot of the social services building. During an alumni weekend, I went back to Duke to sit on the sideline and watch 90 minutes of my old life. Afterward, I met up with my friend Ferg, a freshman on the team when I was a senior. Like me, she’d gone on to spend all her time in the Documentary Studies program. We were both the over-thinker sort, spending as much time wondering what the game meant as we did playing it. So we spent a late night in the library, drinking coffee and jotting “pickup” and “around the world” onto a legal pad. As far as we could tell, pickup was the part of the game with the most to offer…and the part of the game no one ever talked about.
Then it was two weeks of “Are you serious? I’m serious. Let’s actually do it…” When we applied for the $5000 Beneson Arts grant, they told us not to mention the around-the-world part—it sounded too big, too impossible. So we wrote about South America and won the grant. Luke was easy to convince. Then we called up Ryan, my camera partner from college, a guy with a great eye and great instincts, and talked him into wandering around the world with us. We ambushed our favorite professor, who took us to the Provost, a man who happened to have spent the last thirty years playing in pickup games. He gave us a Duke Arts Initiative grant, and suddenly, the notes on our legal pad were things that were actually going to happen—we had enough for two cameras, fancy microphones, and a tripod. We spent the next six months raising more money—writing fundraising letters to anyone from my grandma’s eye doctor to friends of distant, distant relatives.
It’s not easy to ask people for money. “So let me get this straight,” Mr. Davis, my dad’s friend, said into the phone. “You want me to give you money. So that you can travel around the world. Playing soccer.” Um, well…yeah. I tried to explain what the game had to offer: the connective quality, it’s ability to provide a window into the spectrum of culture. I told him about the Mennonites who play in the Bolivian Jungle and the Peruvian women who herd llamas all day and then play in hoop skirts way up in the mountains—but my heart pounded and I stuttered and mumbled and paced, until I just said bye and hung up the phone, sinking down into the couch. But some of those sweaty-palmed phone calls went a little better; people liked the idea of helping kids chase down a long-shot idea. In six months, we raised enough for plane tickets to South America. Then we tracked down places to stay, looking for couches and floors of friends of friends.
On June 16th, we took off. First stop: Port of Spain, Trinidad.
I imagined the “Caribbean”—cool breezes and palm trees—but it was the city and it was hot. My club coach was a 6’2’’ Trinidadian who used to train dogs for the Port of Spain police force. He brought his family to the US when the drug corruption from Venezuela seeped into his own department. After one winter staying indoors in New York, they headed south to Osceola, where he’d heard of a conversion van factory with job openings. They stopped in Pensacola on the way down and never left. At a Sunday pickup game, one of the guys he played with asked him to coach a team of eight-year-old girls. He laughed and said no, but he went out to the practice just to watch. After leaning against the fence for forty minutes, he walked over to the dad. “Man’s out there doing a bunch of junk. Give me the best soccer goal for backyards in the world.” He coached Samba for the next ten years. He got us scholarships to Division I schools across the country—Harvard, Vandy, Duke, Naval Academy, Southeast Louisiana, Auburn, Florida, USF. Now, each time one of us gets married, the guy calls our dads first, our Coach second.
So Trinidad is the logical first stop—we’ll be able to speak the language, we can stay with Coach’s family, and his old soccer cohorts can help us find a game. Ron Laforest, a former T&T forward who once scored a hat trick against Arsenal, told us to meet him at the field. We’d explained we were looking for pickup…but hadn’t yet realized that “pickup” doesn’t translate: when we got to the field, semi-pro players were lacing up their soccer cleats and getting ready for a practice. Practices are exactly what we weren’t looking for, but we didn’t have the heart to tell Ron: Luke and I joined in. They’d lost their last two games, so Ron made them run punishment-fitness. Because Luke and I didn’t want to be the Americans who were too good for sprints, I found myself running at top speed while desperately and futilely attempting to keep up with tall Trinidadians.
When the practice ended, we tried again to explain what we are looking for—informal games, games that don’t count, games played just because. “Ahh,” he said, smiling hugely, his gold front teeth shining in the sunlight. “You want to take a sweat.” We stared at him blankly. “Taking a sweat, that is what we call it. You must go to the fields at 5 pm. You will see.”
So at 4:30 pm, we arrived at the fields. They were completely empty.
This is when we begin to deflate: we thought people played all around the world but maybe we were wrong, maybe this is a bad idea, maybe we shouldn’t have given up our apartments, our jobs, our health insurance in order to search for soccer. Maybe this wasn’t going to work.
We formed a depressing little circle and began to juggle. Over Luke’s left shoulder, I saw a man coming out to the field, and then I saw another, and then another—it was like the scene from Field of Dreams when the ballplayers materialize in the outfield. The four of us looked at each other, eyes bright with the optimism we lacked ten minutes ago. Luke and I made our way over to the players. The guy closest had long, long dreadlocks and he stared straight ahead when I asked, “Do you think we could play with you guys?” He still didn’t look at me but he nodded his head, almost imperceptibly, and I made a note to myself that I needed to get better at asking to join games. Fifteen minutes later, we were playing, and all that awkwardness had gone away: we were no longer Americans, just players, playing with everyone else.
Next it was three months in South America: we searched for gauchos that may or may not still exist in the rural countryside of Uruguay. We drove eight hours along dirt roads in search of those Mennonites who play in the Bolivian Amazon. (When we got there, they said, “No, no, we don’t play ball here—our farm keeps us busy.”) We went inside a Brazilian favela where an eighteen year old with a giant machine gun in his hand hummed the theme song from Kill Bill and called out to us in perfect English, “Welcome to Rocinha, the most beautiful place on earth.” We played with eighty-year-olds who drew up rosters on a Playboy, stretched for a very long time, and then played barefoot, knocking the hell out of each other every Sunday morning. We bribed our way into a Bolivian prison and played on a triangular court with inmates. We played with a thirteen-year-old so good the neighborhood nicknamed her Ronaldinha. We left the continent convinced that we had something, that one way or another, we had to find a way to get to the rest of the world.
(In Trinidad, whenever we told someone what we were doing, they’d ask us, “How many countries have you been to?” Then we’d mumble, “Well, uh, it’s actually our first country,” and you could see in the nod of the person’s head that they didn’t believe we’d really do it. We weren’t sure we believed it ourselves.)
Back in the United States, we edited around the clock in Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies. They gave us keys to the building—two of us did the day shift, two of us took the night shift. We slept at friends’ houses and ate the leftover bagels and cheese platters from the CDS photography events. Our college professors watched rough cuts and helped us try to figure out how to shape hundreds of hours of footage into an hour-long cut. On the other side of the country, Luke’s mom sent his hometown paper a my-son-is-doing-this-movie sort of email. A week later, a big article appeared in the OC Register; the reporter called us: “There’s this guy with a Scottish accent who saw your story in the paper and told me, ‘I want to make this happen for these kids’…and he sounds like he might mean it.” Les Allan, soccer-loving Scot, watched the South America cut and signed on as an investor. We understood that we were very, very lucky.
After two months in Africa and Europe, we returned to Durham, North Carolina, only to pack our lives into our cars and head out to Los Angeles, where we’d meet our investor and finish our film. The economy crashed during our drive across the country. When we arrived in LA, Les took us to a Mexican restaurant and told us apologetically that he couldn’t fund the rest of our movie. Our old cars had too many miles on them to make it back across the country. So we overstayed our welcome at friends’ apartments, ate peanut butter sandwiches, filmed weddings and answered flyers that say things like “Get paid $100 to drink”—all while we figured out how to finish the film. We raised $11,000 through $20 Facebook donations and anonymous checks from generous strangers who said things like “Show America the world speaks the same language; show the world America speaks the same language.” It was enough to get us to Japan, China, and Iran…but, we were still in need of computers and editing systems, so to use the money for travel instead of hardware would be a giant risk.
Ferg saw an ad at the Melrose Mac store in Santa Monica: submit a trailer to win $10,000 of Apple merchandise. She brought back the flyer and we all sat there staring at. There was a fleeting moment of great hope, followed by a feeling of contest-despair—what is the likelihood of actually winning a contest? But we made the trailer and were selected as one of ten finalists—then we had to figure out how to get votes. I convinced an old coach to give me the login info for a server that allows you to send an email to every college coach in the country. Luke and I sent so many emails our yahoo accounts were turned off for two days. Then the soccer bloggers got a hold of it—soon Soccerbyives put us on his site, and our hits went from 30 something to 600 something. Then it was months of waiting—we were supposed to find out June 1st but then it was June 15th and we still hadn’t heard. We took off for Iran—which was foolish; if we lost the contest, we’d have no way to finish the film. We were sitting in an internet café in Tehran, Iran when we got the news—we had 900 more votes than second place. Ferg and I both jumped up and gasped while the boys patted our arms and mumbled, “Shh.”
We had editing equipment—we had a way of finishing the movie. The next six months we carted the computers between apartments. (“My cousin’s out of town this week—we can work at her place.” “Maisie said she didn’t care if you guys slept over again.”) Then there were what we refer to as Ferg’s crack-addict days; between odd jobs and a night-shift bagging groceries at Trader Joe’s, she finally saved up enough to rent a bedroom in an apartment listed on Craigslist. It was big enough to fit a computer in the corner, so we sat on her bed, eating trail mix and sweating from the heat of the monitors and the heat of the Los Angeles summer.
One morning, after we’d worked until three or four am and then passed out, three of us sprawled across her bed, we got back up at 9am. When we heard a knock at the door, Ferg went to answer it. She came back holding an eviction notice in her hand. She sat down on the bed and mumbled, “It says three months unpaid rent.” Ferg has one of those faces that turns colors any time she’s angry or embarrassed; you could see the red spreading up her neck and across her cheeks. “Where the hell has my rent money been going? I’ve been writing him a check every month.” (This is around the time we develop our theory that Ferg’s roommate is a crack addict.)
Pink flyer in hand, she knocked on his bedroom door. Ryan and I sat there listening as their voices got louder and louder:
“That was the landlord—why are we getting an eviction notice?” She tried to keep her voice calm but we could hear it tremble.
“What are you doing with my mail?” he asked, emerging from his room and shutting the door tightly behind him. (He always kept it tightly shut and entered the room from the balcony.)
“Where has my rent money been going?”
“You need to mind your (expletive) business.”
“It is my business—I need to know if I’m still going to have a place to live.”
“Listen (expletive), my check is going to get here tomorrow. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”
“How do I know that?”
“Are you calling me a liar?” he screamed. “Get out—get out now.”
“What do you mean get out?”
“You have one hour to be out of here. Pack your shit and get the (expletive) out of here.”
You can’t just throw your roommate out without warning, so we sort of ignored him, Ryan and I continuing to edit as Ferg sat back down on the bed, fuming.
Then the roommate came in. He stood just past the doorway, “I want you to get the (expletive) out of my house. Get the (expletive) out of my house.”
Ryan, maybe because he’s slightly older than we are, is better at arguing. Calmly, he said, “You can’t do that—you have no rights to throw her out.” He turned away from him and continued to edit.
Ten minutes later, as we trimmed final shots and adjusted subtitles, our computers went dead. From behind us, we heard a sinister voice: “Yep, I turned off the power,” he said, cackling, arms folded in front of his chest. “Now get the hell out of my apartment.” In the kitchen, he threw Ferg’s pots and pans off the shelves. He grabbed garbage bags and tossed Ferg’s belongings into it. “Ok, ok,” she said. “I’ll leave.”
Even though, after three years, we were only about an hour away from finishing the first full cut of our film, we surrendered the fight and started helping Ferg pack. Like the roommate, we packed her things into garbage bags and started making trips out to the street, filling our cars with her life. My car was a solid eight hundred yards away and when I went to find a closer spot, it wouldn’t start. It had made it through 190,000 miles, but today, it refused to kick up. We filled it up anyway, not knowing where else to stick her stuff. I called Luke, who’d started law school a few weeks earlier, and tried to get him to explain the trick for getting it going. Still, I couldn’t get it. Two hours later, Ryan drove a load to his friend’s house and Ferg and I sat on the curb with her Craigslist-dresser. Her arms draped over her knees, she looked pretty defeated. “Do I make bad decisions?” she asked, more unsure than I’d ever heard her sound.
“There’s no way you could have known he was a crack addict,” I told her as I patted her head. We sat there in silence, sweating. It started feeling funny, really funny. Three years ago, we were in a library, hatching a plan; now we were here, on the curb.
When Ryan returned, we packed up the file cabinet and the dresser. We gave my car one last go—Ferg gunning the engine, then throwing it into drive. The car started rolling down the hill, Ferg hopped out: “Get in!” I jumped into the seat, getting my foot on the break right as I got to the stop sign.
I look at that day as one of our best: there’s something great about pursuing something you believe in, even as everything falls down around you. (Of course, I wasn’t the one who’d just gotten thrown out.)
On March 14, 2010, after spending months huddled around the bed, editing 400 hours of footage into 90 minutes, we made our international premiere at SXSW. In the time since then, we’ve set up screenings across the country, filling indy theaters, high school auditoriums, community churches, any place we can afford. On September 21st, we had our New York premiere. Not at a theater—which would’ve cost $3500 we didn’t have—but at Legends Bar, a three-story venue with a projector screen, a dozen-odd flat screens, and a Scottish lady named Geraldine who was willing to let us take over for a night.
The soccer bloggers have been massively helpful, embracing our film—from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, from New York to Ft. Lauderdale, the writers have played a huge part in getting people out to the shows: we feel incredibly grateful. Still, most of the soccer people I talk to have never heard of our doc. Since we have no money for traditional promotion, I cold-call soccer clubs: Hi, my name is Gwendolyn and I made this movie about pickup…you guys should come… I must sound like a weirdo. Sometimes a coach will be enthusiastic—he’ll say, “That sounds great—my players have got to see it,” but a lot of the time coaches rebuff me in the same way you’d get rid of someone trying to sell you insurance. Last week, I called a club in San Diego and the guy who listened to my schpeel replied, “No, I don’t think that’s something our players would be interested in.”
“You don’t think your players would be interested in a movie about soccer around the world?”
Yesterday I called a club director in New York who said, “Look I am very, very busy. I don’t have time to talk to you.”
“But I swear you would like it,” I mumbled.
“Have a good day,” she said, hanging up.
Next I called up a group of Brooklyn-based Italians and the guy cut me off mid-pitch—“I’m busy,” he said, hanging up.
And I get it—I’d be skeptical too if some stranger called me up and tried to pitch me something. I know there’s got to be a better way to do it. When you’re making the movie, when you’re playing with moonshine brewers in Kenya or riding a bus with a broken window on an all night drive in the middle of the Bolivian winter, you’re not thinking about the next stage—how you’re going to get anyone to watch.
Reaching beyond the soccer community is even rougher. At the film festivals, we’ve overheard people say, “Oh, Pelada—the sports movie right? I don’t want to watch a movie about soccer.” I’m the dorky dad of the bunch, the embarrassing one who will go up to them and say, “No, I swear, it’s not just about soccer.” When we do get non-soccer-lovers, they seem shocked by how much they like it: “I didn’t want to go! My boyfriend forced me to come! I am so glad I did—I get it now, I get him!”
One way or another—most likely not because of my phone calls—people have been hearing about our film. We’ve gotten great reviews in the New York Times, Variety, and papers across the country. About 400 people showed up in New York. Six hundred people came to our outdoor screening in Durham. Four-hundred and fifty plus people watched in DC and Irvine (some people sitting on the floor). We sold out Kansas City, Irvine, Newport Beach, and Atlanta. In Portland, we had a week-long theater run: while there were only thirty people at the first screening, by the end of the week, we were the theater’s highest grossing film. After a screening in Vail, one-hundred-plus people walked to the neighboring field and started playing in pick up games.
Still, I’m always convinced no one’s going to show. There’s a scene in Little Man Tate where he passes out flyers for his birthday party and then no one comes. (And this sort of happened to me: I had my seventh birthday party at a Burger King in Slidell, Louisiana and only one kid came—the two of us sat there with our little crowns on, eating French fries.) So now, before every screening—and we get there an hour early to start taking tickets—I spend forty-five minutes positive no one is coming. But ten minutes before show time, people begin to arrive. (Well, most of the time—there have been a couple of screenings where my Little Man Tate vision came true.)
In the next couple months, we’ve got screenings in Calgary, Corona Del Mar, San Antonio, and Gainesville…and we’re still trying for MLS cities St. Louis, Salt Lake, and Miami. In between my real job as a professor at a community college, I’ll call every soccer club I can find on google, write posts on the soccer forums, and email as many addresses as I can pick off the Internet. Hopefully, people will show up.
Photos and text courtesy and copyright of Gwendolyn Oxenham.
Janet Phelps is the owner and founder of This is American Soccer and an avid soccer lover! She played soccer for about 25 years in Flagstaff, AZ. She was forced to stop playing because of a permanent injury!