Friday, June 8, 2012

Gringos at the Kicking + Screening Gate

The rivalry between the Mexican and US national soccer teams is a roiling tornado, churning up popular sentiment from the ground and redistributing the molecules of culture and sport upwards into the atmosphere in a scrambled, often confused tempest.

There are stories from families with split loyalties, friends who travel thousands of miles to bathe in the rivalry and cultural clashes that spill into international incidents.

But why? What drives these two nations into such unique conflict both during pitched battles on spaces of green and in real-world situations? And what the heck fuels it?

This raft of unanswered questions, both practical and philosophical, drove a trio of veteran filmmakers onto a quest of discovery that spanned both American coasts and drove them into the depths of Mexico searching for the ghosts of the country's footballing past.

What resulted was Gringos at the Gate.


The carefully crafted documentary will make its world premier at this month's Kicking + Screening Film Festival in New York City, which runs from June 27-30. Gringos will kick off the festival in Cinema 1 on Wednesday, the football festival's opening day, under the day's theme of 'Enemies Forever.'

The festival is in its fourth year and spread like prairie fire. The annually sold out event in New York has been farmed out to satellite events in places like Amsterdam and Houston, and K+S got its start in London last fall. It was the brainchild of former MLS player and current MLSsoccer.com editor in chief Greg Lalas and Rachel Markus, a veteran of the film industry who hatched the idea for the festival while in London.

When Markus' initial attempt at establishing the event in London failed, she soon found help from an unlikely source: a first date. It was on a blind date with Lalas in April of 2009 that Markus' idea took wing and lifted off, even if the relationship between the two, for all intents and purposes, turned into a friendly business one from then out.

"I told him my sob story and the next day, he was like 'I told Alexi, we want to help you,'" Markus said. "And that's how it was born."

The event has been overloaded with roughly 50 submissions for each of the last two years from far-flung corners of the globe like Iceland and India. The K+S staff selects around nine to 12 per year to display over four days with a feature-length film usually joined by a few shorts. The event has grown by leaps and bounds entirely by word of mouth and viral marketing campaigns, none of which are funded by K+S, which doesn't have an advertising budget. Puts a pretty immediate spin on the popular Twitter hashtag #GrowTheGame.

"If you ask Greg I think one of things he loves is just to help grow the sport or help grow awareness," Markus said. "Our mission is sort of to celebrate soccer and film. We see it as not just a soccer film festival but a soccer culture festival."

As for Gringos, filmmaker Pablo Miralles had been batting around the idea of a proper takedown of the dynamics of the Mexico-USA soccer rivalry for some time. It presented an opportunity to take an unbiased look at what makes the thing tick, to give it its proper due on the ledger of the world's fiercest, most culturally complex soccer rivalries.

To do it, he enlisted the help of two friends and fellow UCLA film school grads Michael Whalen and Roberto Donati in late 2008. By folding in Whalen's expertise as a practiced documentarian and Donati's intimate knowledge of the culture surrounding the Mexican game — he was born and raised in Mexico City — the three covered an intellectual swath wide enough to make a serious dent in the topic.

Miralles offered to pony up the cash to take the team to Columbus for a US-Mexico game in February in 2009 (which turned into another dos-a-cero) and then to Mexico City in August (a thrilling 2-1 Mexico win at the Azteca).

But once Whalen sat down to edit the thing in late 2009, he started unraveling vast spools of enthralling interviews that hinted at something much, much deeper than anything they'd originally envisioned. There were more powerful forces at work here. They felt they had to keep pushing.

"We said that we were just touching the iceberg on this," Miralles said. "There was so much depth to the interviews we'd done that we felt it would be doing disservice to just do a very basic, 'This is a rivalry.'"

Two years of shooting later and Gringos was born. The trio traveled down the spine of California to mine interviews from households that split down the middle on team support. They went to New York during the 2009 Gold Cup, yet another intersection where the relationship between Mexican and American supporters was bent and tested. They probed into the heart of Mexico, traveling deep into Pachuca to find the birthplace of soccer in a country enthralled with it. Even if they had to ask directions countless times to get there.

Shooting finally wrapped last June, nearly a full two years after Whalen first sat down to edit the work. What finally resulted was a sweeping work brimming with interviews from both sides of the aisle and a meaningful probe into the invisible forces that continually pull on the rivalry's rip cord.

Crystallizing a soccer feud that often transcends the mind's natural ability to shrink it down to a manageable scope isn't easy, but it's something Gringos' creators delved into with gusto. And by movie standards, they did it on a shoestring budget, or for about the cost of "a mid-size automobile," says Miralles. Through numerous avenues, including an invaluable infrastructure base provided by Kickstarter, the group was able to fund their trips and stretch a five-figure film budget about as far as it could go.

Later this month, the rest of the soccer-mad world gets to experience it.

"Every day we still find out new stories and angles we could do with it," Miralles said. "It's not like it was a one-time event. I feel like we're coming into the whole rivalry right in the middle of it. Twenty to 30 years from now, we could possibly look back and say this is something that has grown into something truly amazing."

- Will Parchman

1 comment:

Andy said...

Cool! I'm in the video; I was standing in the US Fan end at the game in Columbus.