Documentary screens Tuesday in Edwards
VAIL – When referees or umpires blow whistles to start the game, they holler “play ball,” not “work ball.”
“Pelada” is a sports documentary about the human condition around the globe. It’ll be playing locally Tuesday.
Americans Gwendolyn Oxenham and Ryan White have abandoned their dreams of playing soccer professionally. But they love to play. So they traveled the world filming pickup games and studying how ordinary people interact with each other while they’re playing.
The filmmakers assert, correctly but not directly, that everyone everywhere wants the same things – to love and be loved, live in peace, provide for our families and have a few laughs in the passage from the cradle to the grave. We’d have more success if we played soccer more and shot each other less.
For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bickered with North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui-chun because North Korea sank a South Korean warship.
Warships are expensive.
Soccer is not. You need a ball – any ball. It doesn’t have to be hand sewn by some impoverished indentured servant struggling to survive in a Third World cesspool. A bunch of people chase it, so they’re focused on a common goal. Stack a couple trash cans at the ends of the field and the only argument is whether your shot went over or under the imaginary crossbar.
Anyway, “Pelada” is about Oxenham’s and White’s coming of age as much as anything else. White swaps pro soccer for law school, which is probably not a fair trade. Oxenham isn’t sure what to do as adulthood sets in. For now, she’s traveling with the film and talking with crowds. She’ll be here Tuesday. So should you.
Oxenham lives near Los Angeles – Dana Point – and teaches in a community college. She played her college soccer at Duke and this was her first summer without her sport or her team.
She was working as a deckhand on a boat in Mexico, and they docked near a military outpost where they sent soldiers who would not be nominated for the Good Conduct medal. Naturally, there was a soccer pitch behind it.
Oxenham, who barely speaks enough Spanish to order beer, wandered over and offered a few internationally acceptable hand gestures. About 20 minutes later, she was in a pickup game, celebrating goals and drinking beers with the soldiers.
She got together with some other soccer-playing filmmakers and they decided to take their show on the road.
“We hear so much about how soccer unites, we decided to see for ourselves,” Oxenham said.
Of course, we learn that soccer crosses cultures and is an even more effective societal medium than Facebook.
Most of the time the magic happens, but not always.
They play in Bolivian prisons (it cost $250 to bribe their way in) and film a game between Israelis and Arabs in Jerusalem, Israel.
Their six-month odyssey through 25 countries put them on the field with Kenyan bootleggers, Chinese freestylers and Iranian women playing in their hijab, those head coverings traditional Muslim women wear. You don’t need an organized league or manicured field.
To its great credit, “Pelada” tends away from the sappy, romantic notion that sport can unify humanity and that we’ll live in an harmonic convergence if sit in a circle around the center spot, hold hands and hum.
Israelis and Arabs refused to play on the same team. There had been a terrorist attack the day before.
After their game with the Arabs, an Israeli player points out that while soccer really is lots of fun, it does nothing to resolve the kinds of ideological differences that make people groups want to annihilate one another.
Kenya was the worst. Their field used to be a garbage dump and no matter how often they cleared it away, garbage would work its way to the surface. Human waste littered the sidelines and had to be shoveled away before anyone could play.
Dribbling was impossible. Passing was out of the question. Oxenham says it was one of her favorite games.
“It was awesome. You’d bet 20 shillings on the game – about 35 cents. Some people were supposed to be brewing alcohol for work, but they skipped it to play or watch. People play harder when they’re trying to make up a day’s pay.
“People didn’t take us seriously because we look like tourist with cameras in our backpacks,” Oxenham said. “But soccer players want to tell you their story, and you get access that you might not normally get.”
Then there’s their personal narrative. The filmmakers had been hotshot soccer players in college, but like all athletes the cheering eventually stops. What then?
Their answer? You stop working at soccer like an occupation or quest, and play it like the game it is.