Kicking and Screening

In a soccer game, as in a movie, a narrative unfolds for the viewer. There are action scenes and sad scenes, comedy and drama. But unlike other sports that stop and start, aiding in the collection of immense data, soccer builds a non-stop story that can challenge the viewer—full of dialogue that may seem meaningless until the entire tale unfolds. And even then you may not get a final payoff; as fans of soccer and Woody Allen films know, you must enjoy the ride. Life follows the same path, so I guess it’s no surprise those three things converge into one around the first-ever American film festival dedicated to soccer, and the lives of young US soccer players like Devann Yao.

When Kicking and Screening opens on July 14, that moment of success, that convergence of soccer, film, and life will not be lost on the festival’s founder, Rachel Markus, who had the red carpet pulled from underneith her festival in London before the idea’s resurrection in New York. “Soccer is art,” she says. “Film is art. It’s not a question of the final outcome, but how you got to that final outcome where the beauty lies.”

After graduating from film school at NYU, the native New Yorker, now 38, tried her luck in the industry, covering film festivals as a journalist and working on a French film production in California. Eventually unable to support herself, Markus leaned back on her two other degrees, from Cornell and Stanford, and returned to work as a marketer in the financial services industry. In 2007 that took her to London.

She had been to London a few times previously, once waiting out a layover in 1998 en route to Marseille and the World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Holland. Markus is a soccer fan, played in her youth before club teams existed for girls in her area of Long Island. She worked as a referee in her teenage years and helped run a youth team while in college. So when she was given a ticket to the semi-final, she took one day off from work—her first big corporate job—and made the round trip from New York to Marseille and back in 24 hours. “I’d do it again,” she says of the tiring journey. “I always was a soccer fan, but from that point on, I was hooked, done—it was the Mastercard moment, priceless. From then one I was the person who read every book and watched every film about soccer.”

She wrote fan letters to Simon Kuper, the popular English soccer journalist and author of two books; he responded via his personal email address. Up to that point Markus was like countless American soccer players (and soccer writers), following her passions in the moments between supporting herself in some other way. So in January of 2008 when she thought it would be a great idea to have a soccer film festival in London, it wasn’t a moment of clarity; it was just another creative idea that probably wouldn’t materialize. Then she e-mailed Kuper again and threw out the idea to him. He loved it, referenced 11MM, a successful soccer film festival in Berlin, Germany, and wondered why there had never been one in London. “He put it in my head that I could really do this,” Markus said. She needed someone to tell her it was possible. Game on.

Markus was living in the southern section of London at the time, working for JP Morgan, and had been to a few Fulham soccer games at Craven Cottage. “It could have been Chelsea,” Markus says. “But I had been to a few Fulham games, so I emailed them.” They too liked the idea and offered to host the festival. She began chasing filmmakers and distribution rights, soccer writers, and potential sponsors. Before long she was speaking with the president of FC Barcelona about FC Barcelona Confidential, a film documenting the Catalan club that she desperately wanted to include in the festival. With absolutely no budget, she did what she could to secure films, even once bringing back six bottles of steak sauce from the famous New York chophouse, Peter Luger’s, because she learned one pair of filmmakers were big fans. Steak sauce got her In the Hands of God, a film that follows a group of English freestyle soccer players to Argentina in search of their hero, Diego Maradona. “From there it just sort of snowballed,” she says.

By September of last year the program was set and the festival just a few weeks away. The phone rang. The economy was dropping into recession and Fulham was worried about sponsors and losses. They issued an ultimatum: if the festival didn’t sell out a week prior to its opening, it would be canceled. “And that’s what they did,” Markus says remembering the next phone call. “Just like that it was nothing. Game Over. I was shattered.”

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From July to September 2008 she had been working full-time on the festival because she was laid off by JP Morgan. When the festival collapsed, she returned to New York jobless and too emotionally exhausted with the failure to take another stab at creative success. “I like to think that deep down I knew that it would happen again,” Markus says. “But I didn’t know when I would be confident enough to put myself back out there.”

Then she went on blind date with Greg Lalas. Romance didn’t find a spark, but “Kicking and Screening” did. “She started telling me about this film festival she was putting on in London last fall,” Lalas says, “and how it was canceled last minute. I could hear in her voice and see in her face the disappointment, and so I said, ‘Well let’s do it here in New York.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, why not?’”

“I just needed someone to believe in me again and this festival,” Markus says. “And Greg really stepped up.” For Markus it was a quick lesson on the insular world of American soccer, both outdoor and indoor soccer. If it snowballed in London, it was an avalanche in New York.

As a former professional player and present day writer, editor, broadcaster, and website director, not to mention brother of Alexi, it didn’t take long for Lalas to rally the troops. “There is just something about film and soccer,” Lalas says. “We love seeing soccer up on film. We all grew up watching Victory over and over and over again. I actually learned how to play the theme song to Victory on my guitar–it’s such a big part of my life. [American soccer] is insular, you’re right. But it’s also giving. That’s the other side of it. Everyone wants to help. But Rachel is the real cinephile—the only one who can spell cinephile. She’s doing all the heavy lifting.”

In short order North American film rights were procured and soccer friendly locations chosen that connected the global appeal of the sport with the international culture of New York and each film’s subject–a French lounge for a French film, the Spanish Benevolent Society for FC Barcelona Confidential, and the glitzy Tribeca Grand for the Cosmos expose Once In A Lifetime.

On July 16, when Beckham is scheduled to return to the Los Angeles Galaxy and MLS against the Red Bulls in New York, a panel discussion is planned in Manhattan for those unwilling or unable to travel to Giants Stadium in New Jersey. Beckham’s immediate and lasting impact on American soccer will be the topic of debate before a viewing party of the night’s game. (update: Albert Cedales will introduce the Barcelona film on Friday night of festival and NY Red Bulls’ Freestyle Team will perform Wednesday and Saturday nights.)

They obtained the rights to Victory, but it did not make the cut. Along with FC Barcelona Confidential, In The Hands of God, and Once In A Lifetime, Les Yeux dans les Bleus, a documentary about the World Cup-winning 1998 French National Team, rounds out the modest line-up for the first-time festival and another chapter of Markus’ life.

Soccer. Art. Life.

“At a movie or soccer game, you go and sit for 90 minutes,” Markus says. “You sit and you watch because somewhere in that 90 minutes something brilliant might happen to make it all worth it. It’s a story of 20 players and 2 goalkeepers. People are drawn to stories, and you’ve never seen enough stories or enough games to be satisfied.”

That’s not to say Markus doesn’t feel satisfaction, only that she knows it is short lived, and tomorrow, the next day, the next year, she will have to do it all again. But that’s the beauty of it.

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