A new documentary captures soccer cultures in Latin and South America with an eye towards the future of the U.S. game.
In 2014, four friends from college decided they wanted to go to Brazil together to watch the U.S. men’s national team play in the World Cup. But as former film, journalism and writing majors from Emerson College, they asked themselves a more ambitious question. What if they could pack some camera equipment and visit all of the other other Latin American and South American countries playing in the World Cup before they get to Brazil? From that idea, the film American Fútbol was born. The documentary provides a unique look at various soccer cultures south of the border and how it may affect the evolution of U.S. soccer. Directors Peter Karl and Petar Madjarac spoke to Radio Free Soccer about the intense personal journey of making the film.
What was the inspiration behind making this documentary?
Karl: The inspiration was to break down a barrier between the United States and Latin America through soccer. As a group, soccer brought us together as friends in college. We were just as influenced by the game in Europe as anybody. But the more we thought about it, the more we wondered why the Latin American game doesn’t have more visibility. The division between Spanish and English is a big barrier, but soccer is a universal language. It seemed like a no brainer, especially around the World Cup in Brazil, to use soccer to break down that barrier. That was the true football inspiration. And the other part was that we just really wanted to go to the World Cup (laughs).
The four of you went to eight countries in four months. How complicated of an endeavor was this?
Madjarac: It was definitely a logistical accomplishment. “Arrive alive” was our mantra on the film. On the video side, we tried to pack really light so we could move quickly. We had a budget going in, and we knew we wanted to visit all the countries that qualified for the World Cup in Latin America. We didn’t make it to Honduras for some reason, but we had a plan, we budgeted it out, and I’m proud to say, we came back home after four months about $100 under budget.
Did you have expectations going in as to what you wanted to achieve in making the film?
Karl: We planned a certain amount of it. In Mexico, we had an idea of where we wanted to go and who we wanted to speak to. Same thing in Costa Rica. Colombia was my wheelhouse because I lived there for a year as a journalist, but we had much less planned there. I think with documentary filmmaking, it’s important to set out what you want to accomplish and have as many contacts as you think you need, but also remain flexible to the doors that open to you. Bogotá was the city I lived in, and it is different from the rest of Colombia. The soccer culture is a little bit harder to find. Our real plan was to get something out of Cali when we were there. But our friend Sam (Mathias) was doing research and he found a story about blind soccer players. We were like, wow, that park is literally down the street from the apartment that I lived in. We went there and that whole world opened up to us, which was awesome. In Ecuador, we had a little bit more of a plan going in. But then in Uruguay, I think we literally knocked on the door of Estadio Centenario, the legendary stadium there, and asked if we’d come in and they let us (laughs).
Overall, did you find that people were welcoming to having Americans there filming?
Karl: They were as welcoming as could be. As lean a group as we were, not coming in and demanding that they find somebody who speaks English, I think that helped bring people’s guards down. You’re doing your best to speak Spanish, and we were able to disarm people in that way. Once they saw that we weren’t five cameras and a bunch of people with earpieces, I think that we were able to blend in, and people were very welcoming to us. That’s the nature of Latin America in general.
People are more used to being filmed now with iPhones. But when you show up with a camera, did you feel as though people’s behaviors changed because they were being filmed?
Madjarac: We tried to have the smallest camera possible that would give us the best image, so that definitely helped. Our director of photography, Austin (Ahlborg), had this amazing knack of jumping in the middle of a situation and not really asking permission, but asking for forgiveness if needed. Most of the trip, it was what you would expect. Here are four gringos with a camera. They don’t really fit in. Eventually, we did manage to blend in.
The authenticity comes out most when you are filming in the stadiums. Maybe that’s because people are more focused on the game. We’re used to seeing fan reaction shots on TV, but you were able to get so close that the fan energy leaps off the screen.
Madjarac: Absolutely. When people are focused on something else, it’s going to make for more candid shots. And there are plenty of non-candid shots that ended up on the cutting room floor. But it was a great environment to show. At Cali in Colombia, you can actually feel the people moving and the rhythm of the chants. I think that translates well on screen because of how visible it is, but you also feel like you are part of something bigger.
Karl: I can’t tell you how lucky we were to have someone like Austin. His level of interest in what was happening on the field wasn’t as high as ours was. Especially at the World Cup, he bit the bullet and was cool just to roam around in the stands and shoot instead of turning around to watch the U.S. play Portugal. His back was to the game for almost the entire time. We had a plan where we were going to rotate and take turns filming different games, but once we got in there, he realized had the chance to document this from a different perspective, and said, “This is why I’m here.” We were so lucky to have him.
Did this journey changed the way you view soccer?
Karl: It changed it in a way that I wanted it to change. There were a few surprises along the way. For example, in Argentina, you see the images of fans in Argentina that are broadcasted around the world as the epitome of passion and pageantry around the team. From afar, that’s looks desirable and something that you want to be in the middle of. And the experience of being there is great and is fun. But diving into it more, all the alarm bells went off about the culture and the corruption around that level of passion. When you’re that invested financially in what goes on, it creates a lot of trouble. And I think it showed the dark side of the game. Seeing that at ground level changed things. There’s a moment in the film where one of the lines is that the game becomes tainted with this level of passion. That definitely changed part of the perspective. But the respect and acceptance we received as American fans was incredible. We were kind of the privileged kids on the block when you go to something like that. But when we were on Copacabana Beach, and we were watching the U.S. play Ghana, the amount of Brazilians and Chileans who were supporting us, supporting with us, was awesome! And that was cool for us. It was really neat to be on that stage, on that level, with these countries who as an American, we put them on a soccer pedestal. And here they are putting their arm around you and being like, “You are part of the team now. You are part of the game.”
What was the craziest thing that happened while you were filming?
Madjarac: For me it was in Columbia, in Cali. We really wanted to tell the story about this club because it is famous, Because of their connections with the drug cartels in Colombia, it really knocked the club down. We thought that was a really fascinating story, but we didn’t have any way to get into the game or any contacts. We just showed up and wiggled our way in, and we got into the middle of all the action. There was no way we would have been able to do that if we went through the regular channels. It was all serendipitous. Then we got into the barra’s headquarters, where they had all of their instruments, their flags and where they had all their meetings. It’s not something they usually do. It’s one of my favorite stories because it has so many dimensions to it—some good and some dangerous. Argentina brings out the whole dark side of that relationship between the barras bravas and the fans. But it also shows people who are disenfranchised from society and they are feeling part of a group and making some positive change in their life and in their community. Also, when you end up playing pickup soccer with an Ecuadorian legend like Ulises de la Cruz? (Cruz is a former Ecuadorian national player who played in two World Cups.) That definitely wasn’t part of the plan. And then Sam scores a goal in the game? You couldn’t have scripted it any better.
In American soccer culture we tend to borrow liberally from European soccer culture. Do you feel like we should be looking more towards Latin American culture and South American culture to adopt some of the better parts of their soccer culture?
Karl: Absolutely. A large part of our mission was to open the doors to embrace this even more. Even if you go around to MLS stadiums and lower division stadiums with good supporter groups, you can see a lot of South American style of support with the drums and the nonstop arm movement they all do. But I think that can be a little bit segmented in American soccer culture. You may have a barra brava group, but they may be off to the side. A great example of it mixing together is LAFC, which is just one gigantic wall, where people from all walks of life singing in Spanish and English. They did a great job of weaving everything together. You’re right about how we import so much of European soccer culture. But if you look at the demographic makeup of our country, the people who are American and carry this passion for the game in their blood are Latino or Hispanic, and they’re the ones that were born with the ball at their feet. They’re the ones who speak the game as fluently as anybody else who grew up playing the game. But you have a lot of other like white Americans like me and Petar and Sam, we weren’t born with the game. We all came to it at some point. So to embrace the way that these people celebrate the game is something that can grow and develop as our soccer culture.
Madjarac: And our goal is to win a World Cup one day. That would be an amazing achievement. And as a soccer fan culture in America, we have a lot of work to do because it’s so young in a way. And I think there are so many lessons that we can learn from our neighbors to the south—how much soccer means to those countries, those cultures and people. And I think it has a broader societal message as well that these people are a bigger part of our society as well. So not only should we be embracing them as part of our soccer culture, we should be embracing them as part of our culture, and eventually the team on the field can be better. But as a society, we need to embrace them more, because then as a country, we can improve and move forward in a greater way.
American Fútbol is available to buy or rent on March 12th at iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube Movies, Vudu and Xbox. For more information about organizing live screenings, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.kickingandscreeningmedia.com.