By the utterly lovely Marcela Mora y Araujo
A friend of mine once complained, after a film which had failed to meet her expectations, “all I’m after is 90 minutes of enternainment, is that too much to ask?”. Someone looked at her and said with a perfectly straight face, “that’s exactly what you get with a football match”.
People are forever asking why aren’t there more good films about football. They may as well ask why aren’t there more good films about film. The two genre are in a sense tokens of a type. Football is its own art form – it is the game itself that gives us whatever narrative we may be after: drama, suspense, hope, fear… laughs, tears. The whole gammet of human emotion can be observed on the pitch.
I was re-reading an interview with the Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar where talking about literature he said: “It’s not a game. What I do believe is that literature has such a great margin, a latitude, which allows or even requires – at least to me – a recreational dimension that turns it into a huge game. A game in which you can risk your life but which preserves playful characteristics. Literature evokes for me sports such as basketball or football, in which a combinatorial art, the creation of strategies, are elemental. Without them, there would be no game”.
I feel the same applies to film. Which is not to say that a film couldn’t take football as a subject – far from it. Perhaps the reason why successful football films are rare (although increasingly less) is precisely because they tend to be instances when the filmmakers take football to be a topic which they ought to say something ‘about’.
As any avid football follower will know, football isn’t a ‘thing’ which we can make single pronouncements about, any more than film is. Football is almost an umbrella term which encompasses action, illusion, dreams, pain, sadness, and increasingly elements of showbusiness such as advertising, murky international deals and the attention of the rich and famous.
Sue Clayton, a director and screenwriting lecturer for the University of London and the British Council, claimed to have found the formula for the perfect film. According to her, the perfect film would be made up of: action 30%, comedy 17%, good v evil 13%, love/sex/romance 12%, special effects 10%, plot 10% and music 8%.
To varying degrees in the percentages, an average football match has its quota of all the above.
Over the last decade I have had reason to observe Diego Maradona and his ‘entourage’ on several occassions. As a subject (journalistic, football, film… whatever the channel) he is without equal. His fairytale rise from rags to riches, his compulsive misbehaviour, his talent, his brilliance… all combine to provide every ingredient a good story could ever wish for.
I always remember being invited to join his ‘intimate’ dinner party in October 1995. First, outside the Boca stadium where a match had just finished, I was ‘loaded’ onto the back of a cattle truck with about 20 or 30 young men whom, if I met in a dark ally, would inspire me to cross the road. Then, I joined an assortment of fat women, gangster looking men, loud children, seated around some tables shaped in U, and Diego like the king of this bizarre kingdom seated at the centre. They banged cutlery and cheered his every word as if we were on the terraces, or perhaps it is the terraces that emulate Diego’s family dynamics. They swore and kissed each other and insulted each other and embraced again. They laughed. The whole thing was beamed live on national television but only certain frames would be broadcast – a close up of Diego, the celebrities and the restaurant owner, the musicians who came to perform… . The essence, the feel of the event, was never broadcast.
It was an atmosphere that I have on occasion seen successfully depicted in films such as Ettore Scolla’s portrayals of life in the poverty striken outskirts of Italian cities. And, of course, in Emir Kusturica’s films portraying gipsy life in Eastern Europe.
What Emir Kusturica has achieved in his films is to take us, the viewer, into the code by which his characters live, without bringing our moral baggage with us. Rather than suspension of disbelief it is suspension of western value judgments.
In the Hollywood movies, and by Hollywood I mean all mainstream white western cinema, we have those formulaic portrayals in which there is a single moral dilemma, a bad guy and a good guy, a homogenous sense of what things should be like. On the rare occassions in which the heroe commits some kind of transgression (adultery, theft, etc) this becomes the ‘issue’, and punishment or justification will be provided accordingly.
In Kusturica’s films the moral code is more honest: his characters will sell their own children or thoroughly search the corpses of their own parents in search of cash. Good and evil are thus no longer defined by the written laws but rather by a sense of the warmth, loyalty, and appeal of the characters. By the end of the movie we are no longer appalled or questioning of the ethics of what goes on, but rather have been absorbed into accepting that’s how things work and just hoping the ones we like get their way.
This is more like real life generally but particularly like real life in the ghetto, in the developing world, in football even.
It was Hunter Thompson who said we live in a society where everyone is guilty and “the only crime is to get caught”. Traditional film has taken a pedagogic approach which is so removed from reality that it has become escapism in the most dumbing of ways. There are no shades of grey, everything is black and white (albeit in technicolor).
The western media has taken a similar stance, and with regards to Maradona in particular for example, has always clinged firmly to judgmental stances: he takes cocaine, he cheats. Therefore, he is evil.
The reality is that a lot of people take cocaine – and that the formal rules of football are such that it allows for breaches to go unpunished as long as the referee doesn’t see them. Societies like Argentina, where the judiciary is endemically corrupt and the application of the formal rules has always been arbitrary, people function according to a code which recognizes informal rules.
Maradona’s sin has always been his transparency and his absolute refusal to hide this fact. He is, in many ways, the most honest of us all. For he never lies. He is always sincere and true to his whims.
Kusturica has not breached rules in his art, but he has done away with Hollywood conventions and he is in many senses regarded as a maverick. A rebel of extraordinary talent.
But is he the Maradona of the film world?
GENIUS AND CELEBRITY
There is a wonderful moment captured on camera of a meeting between Kusturica and Coppola (Francis Ford). Coppola is sitting down and Kusturica (who has presided the Cannes film Festival and won an Oscar) goes up to him and introduces himself. It becomes clear that Coppola has no idea who he is, doesn’t even stand up, and Kusturica eventually walks away.
The clip was shown to a series of European intellectuals who deconstruct the encounter, mostly concluding that Coppola represents Hollywood and Kusturica independent European cinema. The former is so ignorant of the accomplishments of the latter, and the scene is both humbling and frustrating.
Maradona knows who Kusturica is and even requested personally that Kusturica be the man to direct the official documentary on Maradona’s life. This is part of a series of deals Maradona has signed with production companies who will ‘exploit’ his image and split the proceeds with him. Maradona admires Kusturica, one can only imagine because he fully understands the world depicted by Emir in his films. There may be more in common between the marginal life of the Balkans and the slums of Buenos Aires than either of them share with Hollywood.
And Kusturica has a lot to offer Maradona: an entrée into the glamorous world of film celebrities, invitations to walk along the red carpet in Cannes, access to the frivolous five star existence of the superstars. Last year (2005) this meeting between one world and another was splashed across the pages of Argentina’s versions of Hello magazine and, pressumably, when Maradona visited Serbia the same happened there.
Kusturica got to grasp the Maradona clan in its entirety, befriending the daughters who are now soap opera actresses, visiting Naples where Maradona is revered like a God, pressumably capturing the candlelit altars where the virgin is replaced by Diego on film.
Another wonderful point of connection between these two is Kusturica’s treatment of death. In his films, characters die and then come to life again without any explanation. Or you are never sure if they’re dead or alive. Diego himself has been thought dead many times – his health now defies medical science and he himself refers to “the time when I died” and even “the time when I really died”. Whereas most people struggle to comprehend what Maradona’s physicians and friends refer to as a ‘miracle’ Kusturica is probably ideally suited to be able to tell this story in a completely believable way.
Interviewed by the Guardian about the project and Diego Kusturica said: “There are always motherfuckers queing up to pull you down to earth. But we must fly occassionally, we all have to feel that joy or we are nothing”.
For these reasons Emir Kusturica is perhaps the most apt filmmaker imaginable to make the documentary of Diego maradona’s life. And yet, the project is now at a standstill, its completion delayed, the real life elements involved in ‘film-making’ and ‘dealing with Maradona’ conspiring to stall this most promising of ouvres.
THE CUM SHOT
Any film, any football match, needs its climax. Whether a hand goal, a goal of such beauty and prowess that for 20 years or more no-one will think of another, or a head-butt, each game will have its dramatic fulcrum.
And films too will require the equivalent of the goal, or what is known in the porn industry as the cum shot: the moment that makes the whole thing worthwhile, the entire picture fall into place.
In Maradona’s relationship with the media (TV, books, film, whatever) the cum shot has come to be widely regarded as the ‘sit-down’ one on one with Maradona himslef. Kusturica is no different, and it is his need to have this one last exclusive moment with Diego that is holding back completion.
A little over a year ago I visited the set of Maradona’s own TV show, a bizarre cross between a reality show and an italian mega production, with cars on set and Diego’s own family captured weeping among the audience. My visit coincided with Emir’s. It was a double edged sword for him: he was hoping to appear on the show as an interviewee in exchange for an interview for his own film with Diego. But instead he was paraded onto a set with a white sofa and some other guests, hardly given a chance to speak, and made to watch from within the bizarre spectacle which ensued. It happened to be on that night that a Mexican actor who spent most of his adult life dressed as a child in his show “El chavo del Ocho” (the orphan from number eight) was the guest of honour. Now, El Chavo was a children’s show which has delighted many generations of Latin American TV watching children (which is many, for even in the most deprived areas of the thirld world TV sets beam all day long) and the Mexican actor is now a reactionary celebrity in his late 70s. But Maradona loves him, and his show, and when he was a guest on this programme the producers dressed dozens of small children in the Chavo’s characteristic outfit and filled the set with smoke as the kids performed a choreagraphed dance around the old Mexican man. I caught a glimpse of an image which will stay with me forever: Kusturica, whose own cameraman had been banned from filming in the studio, stood up in the middle of the smoke filled set, his camera held out like a machine gun, and he spanned the studio with a killer look in his eye.
For me, that would be as good an image as any to call it quits. If I was him, I would have what I came for.
But alas, Kusturica still awaits his audience with Diego: his proper ‘sit down one on one exclusive’ which Diego has come to realize is the ace up his sleeve, the most powerful bargaining tool he has, and therefore, the card which he keeps closest to his chest.
A series of missed planes on both sides, impossible schedules, and one pressumes egos which are getting in the way of pragmatic negotiations have meant that a year on this exchange has not taken place and that the maverick film-maker is unable to complete his cut while the maverick footballer – one can only speculate – is playing hard to get in the hope of getting something more out of the project.
Yet here is where the film-maker and his subject cease to be on an equal footing: Diego is now more like Francis Ford, sitting grandly and refusing to acknowledge the unique brilliance of the man who stands before him – Emir.
And Emir, proud like a gipsy from the Balkans, will not give an inch.
No doubt there is enough canned footage to make us all, lovers of the game itself, pursuers of the pure joy, the flight of genius, the trajectory of the ball, the magic of the celluloid, rejoice in what Emir has shot, could cut.But will we ever get to see it?