Kicking & Screening talks with Ab Winsemius, director of¬†90 Minutes, screening at MASS MoCA on April 24, as part of the Kicking & Screening Soccer Film Fest.
What inspired you to film in the US , not known for its soccer fervor compared to the¬†rest of the world?
I “heart” NYC and I “heart” fpptball – that’s the most important inspiration. I’ve played football with and against numerous nationalities ever since I arrived in NYC in 2002. It’s amazing. If you like football, you have to love it here. You can’t really equate NYC to the rest of the US. Back in November 2005, I was reading some statistics that close to 40% of all New Yorkers were not born in the US. Six out of ten babies born in New York, have at least one foreign parent. There are over 185 different nationalities living in the city. That’s amazing. In preparing for the documentary we found that there were 20 Latin American leagues alone in NYC. We got to about 40 different leagues in our research. Another major source of inspiration was a book called “Football Against the Enemy” by Simon Kuper, a journalist and columnist for the Financial Times. In this book he presents stories from all over the world that each in their own way express how football is a reflection of society and vice versa. I felt I could tell that story within the city of New York. So when I found myself spending my evenings in a hotel lobby in LA for two months for work in early 2006, I started writing a treatment, largely based on Simon Kuper’s book. Based on these stories and some basic research into the countries that participated in the World Cup, I wrote profiles of the characters I wanted to find for each country. Then we took a culinary guide to international cuisines in NYC and took to the streets to find football fans from all 32 countries.
Were you surprised by the allegiances to “home countries”, by even second and¬†third generation Americans, when¬†watching the World Cup?
Not at all. Being a foreigner myself, I completely understand how much more important your nationality is to your identity when you’re outside of your own country. Makes sense right? If everyone is Dutch, who cares about you being Dutch? But when nobody else is Dutch, you are more Dutch than you’ve ever been before, whether you like it or not. I think that sense of identity might become even more significant to second or third generation Americans.
Did you encounter any immigrants who were rooting for the US or other countries, irrespective of how their own,¬†home country¬†was playing in the Cup?
Yes – all the time. First of all, there were of course tons of football fans from countries that hadn’t qualified for the World Cup. They tend to adopt one or two favorite teams based on history, playing style, and in the case of smaller countries, geographical proximity. For instance, in the film our Mexican character, Felipe, states minutes after Mexico got knocked out of the tournament by Argentina, that he now supports any other South American country and even the US, because I feels he is American. All our African characters also root for the other African countries, because they feel they are a small force in the world and want to show the world that they can take a stand and be a force to be reckoned with. Their lack of success in other areas on a global scale completely unites them
Is it a paradox? On one hand, the¬†World Cup¬†brings so many together, yet at the same time loyalties seem to stay on cultural and national lines.
Yes.¬† It’s true that it provides a topic of conversation allowing you to speak to anyone. And it definitely opens doors, as we noticed when we starting approaching people to participate in the movie. It also provides a great podium for the world to discuss topics such as racism and equality.¬† However, the conversation tends to be fairly shallow when pertaining to the World Cup. Our Tunisian character mentioned that it doesn’t help the world to let two countries play against each other in a stadium filled with thousands and thousands of fans, because something gets lost in the audience when people are only encouraged to increase their sense of national identity and chew their opposition out. He said: “Football can only help the world if we let thousands of Jews play football against thousands of Muslims” And he’s right. It’s the opposite of what happens in a stadium. On a pitch, you don’t get lost in mass hysteria, often with many negative excesses. On a pitch you’re very much an individual playing with and against other individuals. If you play the game often enough you get to really know and understand the other individuals out there.
What was most surprising to you as revealed during filming?
This may sound a bit obvious at first, but I wish everybody could experience this for themselves. New York is home to an amazing amount of amazing little societies. Each completely self-sufficient and successful, yet fairly segregated from each other. They interact and are all very curious about each other but they still find it hard to mingle. There are obvious examples of the Italian community down their in Bayridge. Beautiful, passionate people. But our Ghanaian character Kofi introduced us to the Ashinti tribe. Did you know there are 10.000 Ashanti’s in The Bronx?¬† They have a fully functional tribe structure, including job agencies, tax services, lawyers, banks and everything. Absolutely amazing and from what we could see, super successful. Same goes for our Ivorian and Angolan characters. It is absolutely amazing to experience how all these societies from all these different countries bring their own culture and habits along and it’s all right there on such a relatively small piece of earth. These are the real American Dreams to me. Not the rags to riches of a poor immigrant that made it big in electronics, but these small societies that make it all happen together and help each other to live happy, successful lives. Sorry, I got a little sentimental there, but I encourage everyone – football fans and non-fans – to just take one summer Saturday afternoon and go to soccer pitches in Red Hook. Around those two pitches you can eat and drink your way from Argentina to Mexico. It is sublime.
Were there any extreme stories of fans? Do fans have any superstitions about watching?
There were a lot of extreme stories and all of them very different. Some people wear the same underwear on game day without washing until their team loses. Others walk out of every room backwards on game day. One story about an extreme football fan, that touched me very much was our Serbian character, Dushan. In Belgrade he was an Ultra, an extreme hardcore fan of Red Star Belgrade. During the MiloŇ°evi?’ regime, one of MiloŇ°evi?’s ally’s, a mobster called Arkan, recruited guerillas directly from the terraces of Red Star Belgrade. They had tried to recruit Dushan as well. Fortunately, Dushan’s dad saw what was happening and helped him apply for a green card, which he won. The Arkan Tiger’s later carried out all the dirty work for Milosovitsch. They were responsible for the biggest part of the genocide that took place there. Dushan knew many of them. He got away, became a barman in NYC, opened a very successful place called Employees Only, and even placed second at the World Bartending Championships.