This story was originally published June 6, 2010.
Tip for directors of documentaries: When applying for grants, delete the budget line “$400 for prison fruitcakes.”
You may have to pay that much, if the cost of those desserts is really a bribe to let you play soccer in a Bolivian jail. But spend it under the radar.
That’s one of the countless lessons Rebekah Fergusson learned while shooting “Pelada,” which has packed houses at two major film festivals.
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She, two fellow Duke University grads and a guy from Notre Dame came up with a novel idea: Two of them would play soccer across the globe, while the other two followed with cameras. (The word “pelada” means not only a pickup game in Brazil, where they started, but “naked” - the sport stripped down to its essence.)
They ended up in 25 countries, kicking everywhere from an Iranian field where they drew the attention of the police to the grounds of the South African stadium built for the 2010 World Cup, which begins Friday. (They couldn’t get onto that sacred turf, so they played next door with black construction workers amused by these gangly white American kids.)
Along the way, the world’s most universally loved sport gave them common ground with South American nuns, Bolivian gangsters, Japanese “salarymen” and Arabs who spoke not a word of English.
Notre Dame’s Luke Boughen and Duke’s Gwendolyn Oxenham, the on-camera team, had national-level soccer skills in college and jokingly call themselves “has-beens” in the film. When this project began, she was ending a graduate-level writing course; he was putting up billboards and toying with applications to law school.
Duke grad Ryan White was embarking on a documentary career but had just quit a job in Washington. And Fergusson, the youngest member of the quartet that set sail in 2007 - she was 22 and fresh out of Duke - was treading water.
“It was a place in all our lives where it was time for a change,” she says. “The idea gained momentum, and we thought, ‘If we don’t do it now, then when?’ It was a romantic notion: Put everything on hold, before your (adult) lives start.
“Luke and Gwendolyn had identified themselves so single-mindedly as athletes that nothing else mattered. That seems funny to people who are 40 and 50 years old, that we’re in our 20s and mourning our previous lives already! But the film is partly about that question: What do you do now, other than relive your glory days?”
‘I did crazy things’
They gained perspective over and over by meeting people in the humblest circumstances.
A 13-year-old girl in a Brazilian ghetto, who had earned the nickname “Ronaldinha” because she reminded neighbors of the great Brazilian star Ronaldinho, beat Luke one-on-one; that night, the filmmakers slept on the floor of her tiny house.
In Nairobi, they played on Austin’s Field. It sits in Mathare Valley, known as the oldest slum in Africa, and it’s named for the gentle soul who cleaned an acre of garbage and taught impoverished children to play. Sunday tournaments there cost 35 cents to enter; they’re often won by men who make chang’aa, a homemade alcohol, and can gain prestige only on the field.
And at every step, Fergusson learned the director’s knack of making smart snap decisions.
When Luke and Gwendolyn bought forged tickets to the European soccer championships - unwittingly, of course - Fergusson nabbed unapproved footage of them in an Austrian police station. As she walked through the gate of that Bolivian prison, she used a tiny tourist camera to get a shot she wasn’t supposed to be taking.
“The whole trip was one ‘MacGyver’ move after another,” she says, laughing. “I did crazy things like hanging out of cars to get cool tracking shots, making contraptions where the camera rode on the roof on a pillowesque thing. A couple of times, I almost plunged out the window when Ryan hit the brakes on a gravel road.”
That resourcefulness would not surprise Sadie Tillery, director of programming for Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Fergusson interned in her programming department, and when Tillery saw “Pelada” - which played to two full theaters at her Durham festival - it reminded her of the director’s “sincere openness and ability to be thoughtful without taking oneself too seriously.
“For me, soccer (was) just the tool for encountering a broader view. When I travel, it is an opportunity to realize ... how much bigger life is than my own experiences. ‘Pelada’ embodies that idea. It’s easy for individuals to get stuck in their dreams in such a way that it’s difficult to imagine other ways to succeed and ... be happy.”
The South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, gave “Pelada” its world premiere in March, as one of about five dozen documentaries chosen from 700 or 800 submitted.
“It jumped out at us,” says festival director Janet Pierson. “It took a simple, personal subject and illustrated humanity through it. I don’t think you have to be aware of soccer at all to care about this movie. To me, it’s about the emphasis put on kids to be great athletes.
“It does show how soccer is an icebreaker around the world. I lived in Fiji for a year, on an island where people had no electricity or phones but played soccer every day. It shows the joy in this great equalizer, a simple thing anyone can do. And the gender politics are fascinating.”
Pierson was referring to the scene where male Iranians flinched at playing with Oxenham, then embraced her after she showed her merit on the field.
‘As real as we could get’
Fergusson says she wasn’t trying to make philosophic points with the film but admits some did sneak in:
“Our aesthetic was less about sweeping generalizations about politics or social conditions and more about capturing details, seeing what was as real as we could get.
“Still, we shot a game outside Jerusalem, where Arabs played Israelis on the day after a terrorist attack. You see an Israeli player say it’s bull---- (that the game can unify enemies), but they’re playing on the same court and not fighting. That does mean something.”