In ‘Pelada,’ Pickup Games Around the World

If the director Martin Scorsese can do a horror flick, then next month’s South by Southwest film festival can serve as the world premiere for a soccer film, “Pelada.” Right?

Tucked among the other titles in the SXSW 2010 program in Austin, Tex., March 12-20 that include “MacGruber,” “Barbershop Punk,” “The People vs. George Lucas,” “The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights” and others, “Pelada” is an ode to soccer around the globe, but with a twist — the games are played far, far away from manicured fields and are bereft of highly paid players. (“Pelada” will have its world premiere at the festival on Sunday, March 14 at the Austin Convention Center.)

Instead, the film, a labor of love among the directors Rebekah Fergusson, Luke Boughen, Gwendolyn Oxenham and Ryan White, might qualify as the soccer world’s answer to the 1966 surf-dude film the “Endless Summer.”

In “Pelada,” the four young Americans embark on a six-month odyssey to 25 different countries, playing pickup games in locales that most American tourists avoid. From a prison in Bolivia to a game with bootleggers in Kenya, from freestylers in China to women playing in the hijab in Iran.

Fergusson and Oxenham were separated by several years as both played college soccer for Duke University. Both dabbled in documentary studies when they were in college.

“We faced this question: What will it be like when playing soccer isn’t your identity any more?” Fergusson, 25, said in a recent telephone interview. “What do you do when the game is over? ”

Fergusson toyed with the idea of making a documentary called “Hasbeens” that would deal with people whose careers had ended. It was a short leap until they realized that their lives as veritable soccer hasbeens was the kernal of a wider film effort. Oxenham had spent a summer working on a yacht plying the Caribbean when it pulled up at a Mexican army outpost. Speaking no Spanish, Oxenham weedled her way into a pickup game on the beach. “That’s when it dawned on us,” Fergusson said. “They kind of couldn’t believe it. Here we were in a machismo country and there was this highly skilled girl on the soccer field.”

After raising roughly $30,000 in financing, the quartet set off for South America in the fall of 2007 and the film’s focus gradually crystallized on Oxenham and Boughen. Boughen had played at Notre Dame and the two met when Oxenham was doing graduate studies in South Bend, Ind.

“Luke and Gwen more embodied the characters as hasbeens,” Fergusson said. “So Ryan and I just picked up the cameras.”

What followed was a pickup game inside the walls of a prison in La Paz, Bolivia.

“You can bribe your way in as a tourist and Luke and I went inside to negotiate a deal,” Fergusson said. “We paid them about $250 to get in. The guards don’t really bother inside the prison. It was a crazy experience in such a scary and frightening environment. It was 5 v 5 on an oddly shaped field, kind of like futsal. And the prisoners were all very skillful.”

But it was in the Middle East, during a spell in Israel, that Fergusson said the group came face to face with a popular notion that soccer can unite people who have little in common and who more likely than not loathe the other side. They found that popular notion — one which FIFA, the sport’s world governing body loves to promulgate — to be pure nonsense.

In downtown Jerusalem, the group found a field that was used by mostly Jewish players, but which was turned over to Arab players later at night. It was only several days after a Palestinian hijacked a piece of construction equipment and killed a number of Israelis.

“We were on the court one night and could feel the tension,” Fergusson said. “A group of Jews and Arabs were playing against each other; it was civil. We did some interviews and the tension was palpable and for the first time in our travels it was not just about the love of soccer. It was an added element. There was a great line from one of the Jewish players who said ‘although there are some people who try to portray football as being above politics, above all tensions, it’s bull. We will play with them, but we hate them.’ ”

After the festival in Texas, Fergusson said she and her associates hope to get “Pelada” entered into other film festivals around the world, including the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this summer. They have sold the film’s international rights to PBS.

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