Just as the top soccer players on the planet gather in South Africa for the start of the month-long World Cup, a smaller but some would argue equally intriguing soccer event occurs Thursday evening at Brit’s Pub in Minneapolis.
It’s the screening of “Pelada,” a new documentary about pick-up soccer shot in 25 countries all over the world. Gwendolyn Oxenham, one of the players featured in the film, will introduce the event.
“Literally the word means ‘naked,’” says the movie’s producer and co-director Ryan White. It’s Portuguese, and a word the “Pelada” crew learned in Brazil.
“That’s what they call pick-up soccer there,” White continues, “because it’s the purest form of the game.”
“It’s the side of the game without uniforms and without referees. It can be a game between two people, it can be a game between 20 people. Goals can be made out of anything. Rules are made up every game.”
The movie came about because the two central figures in the film, college stars Oxenham (shown above in Bolivia,) who played for Duke and Luke Boughen, who played for Notre Dame, had come to the end of their playing careers.
White says that’s when they asked themselves a question.
“Kind of a last hurrah to soccer, before they moved on with their lives, if they could do anything combining their passions of film making and soccer, what would they do?”
They recruited another former Duke player Rebekah Fergusson and White to run the cameras then set off on a global expedition.
White says due to the spontaneous nature of pick-up soccer they couldn’t really plan. They would pick a likely country, and city, learn the local word for pick-up soccer, and then see what they could find.
“Most of the stories that made the final cut are stories we happened upon. Basically our job for two years of travelling around the worlds was to wander.”
White says they found some amazing stuff.
“For instance Luke and Gwendolyn in La Paz, Bolivia, bribed their way into a prison. They heard that the best soccer happens on the prison courtyard.”
Then there was the slum in Kenya best known for moonshine production where locals gathered for games, and bet heavily on the outcome.
There were the South African construction workers who played in their lunch break while building the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town for the World Cup.
“They would use their hard hats as the goals, and play in their complete overalls, and they had 25 minutes to play before their lunch break was over and the bell rings, and so that was kind of the perfect story for us in the limelight of the professional game. Literally in the shadow of the stadium these guys, many who were 40, 50 years old and overweight were still out there playing for the love of the game.”
And finally there was their trip to Iran, where, despite it being technically illegal for men and women to play in the same game, Gwendolyn was invited to join a group of male players.
White says as their journey continued it was fascinating to see how people reacted to Luke and Gwendolyn. Both are talented players, but she evoked the most interest.
“Luke could go out there and score 10 goals in a game and no-one would bat an eyelash,” White says. “And Gwendolyn would go out there and do one quick move around a guy and the whole crowd would go nuts.”
The quartet learned how to make the most of their opportunities. They had to be ready for anything, but they also had to be safe. He says they rarely went in telling people what they were doing from the outset.
“We kind of disguised ourselves as backpackers.”
Only when they felt they had something good would they break out the cameras, which were, again to remain inconspicuous, consumer models. White says he and Fergusson can now shoot a pick-up game well at the drop of a hat.
“Pick-up games, they might only last three of four minutes, so you have to have it down to a science, to cover all your shots, to make sure you are getting that game and all the shots you need to portray it in the film.”
Despite the limitations of time and their equipment the Pelada crew got amazing footage. White says the real problem was deciding what to use, and what to leave on the cutting room floor.
The Minneapolis screening on Thursday is part of a multi-prong approach to distribution. The film is being shown all over the country at special events linked to the World Cup. It’s also available through video on demand, and DVD. White says if all goes well there could be a theatrical release, and maybe a broadcast too. PBS is distributing the film internationally, and he hopes there could be enough interest for a domestic airing too.
White says the Minneapolis screening is in part a thank you to supporters in the Twin Cities. Local soccer fans, including the “Inside Minnesota Soccer” blog have thrown their weight behind the film, with some Minnesotans supporting the film financially too.
You can listen to my conversation with Ryan White here;
And here is the trailer: