Duke alums make soccer doc
Recess’ Brian Contratto e-mailed with Gwendolyn Oxenham, Trinity ’03, co-director and star of 2010 Full Frame entry Pelada. The film, which premiered at South by Southwest, will screen free to the public on Saturday, April 10, in Durham Central Park at 8 p.m. There will be a repeat screening in Cinema 4 on April 11 at 7:30 p.m.
When did you begin playing pick-up soccer games around the world, and what incited your travels in the first place? Were you just traveling the world after school?
The summer after I graduated, I had a job working as a deckhand on a boat in Mexico. We anchored off an island that served as an outpost for the Mexican navy and, right behind these soldiers carrying guns and machetes, there was a makeshift soccer field. I dinghied over, made kicking gestures and within an hour, I was sharing beers and goal celebrations with soldiers. The game’s ability to create intimacy between strangers is at the center of our film.
I also grew up playing in pick-up games every night in Pensacola, Florida. And at Duke, we played in a lot of pick-up games with the men’s team and Durham locals during the spring season.
What are your documentary film credentials, both graduate and undergraduate, and what inspired confidence in your ability to complete this project?
Rebekah, Ryan and I are all products of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, a fantastic program with professors who are all passionate about something, whether that’s taking photographs of Southern cemeteries or recording music in the Andes of Peru. They sort of taught you to chase what you care about, and they were the first people we came to when we had the idea. They helped us during every step of the process, even taking us in during the editing stage, allowing us to use the equipment late into the night. They also pretty much fed us, always sending the conference or event leftovers our way.
Could you pinpoint any especially poignant or revelatory moments during the project, and are they captured in Pelada?
There was a moment in the prison in Bolivia where I looked up at Luke and saw that an inmate had his arm around Luke’s shoulder; it seemed like a pretty perfect illustration of the game’s ability to dissolve all circumstances. There were similar moments throughout the trip, both on and off the camera: two Iranian teenagers jumping on Luke during a goal celebration, Argentinian men picking me up, Togolese border control stopping the passport-stamping to take a moment to play, Iranian female airport security juggling with chador-engulfed thighs...there is nothing like the game.
Is it typically easy to enter as a foreigner into these pick-up games, or is there a certain apprehension involved? Then again, isn’t that part of the point of the film—soccer’s ability to transcend these differences, if only temporarily? Did that sentiment prove true?
When you first ask to play, and you’re a blond American guy (or worse, a female), people are frequently skeptical, but as soon as you show you can play, as soon as they see you share the same love they do, everything changes—you’re invited for beers and invited into people’s homes for mom-cooked meals.
Even in games marked by tension—like the game in Jersualem between Arabs and Jews—it’s still people playing together on one field.
One memorable day was when we wandered into Palestine with our soccer ball, knowing no one and unable to speak the language; within five minutes, we had a posse of people leading us to a parking lot to play in an afternoon game. You get to know people in a way that seems so effortless.
Have you maintained any of the personal connections you’ve made in the filmmaking or soccer-playing process? Any plans to return for a rematch at any of these locales?
Yes. We keep in touch with everyone via Facebook and email. We’d love a rematch, although we’re all way too broke for any more international travel in the near future.
What has your main role been in the filmmaking process, apart from obviously being one of the protagonists in Pelada? Do you consider yourself a filmmaker or have any aspirations for another documentary in the future?
Since there are only four of us, we all had a big part in everything—the fundraising, the planning, the directing, the editing, the music-finding, the PR. After spending three years editing 400 hours of footage into 90 minutes and fleshing out a story, I very much consider myself a filmmaker. Having received my MFA in creative writing from Notre Dame, I was fascinated by the interplay between words and images.
I also wrote a blog: http://www.pelada-movie.com/blog/
Are there any other documentaries you’re particularly interested in seeing at Full Frame yourself?
In My Mind, Freedom Riders, Google Baby, How to Fold a Flag, Last Train Home, Man Push Cart, No Crossover: The Trials of Allen Iverson, The Oath, War Don Don...there’s a ton.
Pelada will screen at 8 p.m. Saturday in Durham Central Park. The screening is free.