That the Swansea City film documentary Jack To A King briefly had a higher average score than perennial “best ever” The Shawshank Redemption on the IMDB film website is as statistically meaningful as the league tables newspapers insist on printing after one match. But approval from amateur reviewers and short extensions to planned runs in four west Wales cinemas suggests that JTAK – out on DVD and digitally in December – is a hit with its target audience, and with good reason.
It looks terrific, has big-screen production values and vividly recalls familiar scenes and stories. There is achingly evocative footage of the old Vetch Field and some great match action. The film-makers found compelling voices. James Thomas, whose goals kept the Swans in the league in 2003, is gently amiable while Leon Britton is engaging, observant and thoughtful. Fans of all clubs will recognise the feelings director Martin Morgan describes from the Championship play-off final against Reading, while fellow director David Morgan gives the narrative its emotional core.
The quality of those voices made it possible to dispense with traditional documentary props. There is no voiceover narrator or outside expert analysis – although the happy accident that fan Huw Bowen is also Professor of History at Swansea University enables some valuable perspective-setting – and no captions introducing speakers. This last may leave those not in the know a little puzzled at times.
Bookending Swansea’s recent history with the galvanising battle against unpopular owner Tony Petty in 2001 and promotion to the Premier League a decade later makes dramatic sense. Securing an interview with Petty was a coup, but his pleas in mitigation are outweighed by clear evidence that he was not, as asserted at the time, the only potential buyer and club employees recalling how they frantically hid cash whenever he was on the premises. To thank him – as executive producer Mal Pope has said some do – for the club’s subsequent rise is akin to crediting Andy Coulson for raising awareness of press intrusion.
One particularly memorable sequence recalls Petty’s sale of the club to the current owners, offering the compelling image of £20,000 in Tesco bags while leaving unexplained the logistics of extracting such a sum from cashpoints. The one real misjudgement is interviewing the “North Bank Alliance” opposition group in balaclava masks, making them look both nastier and far more serious than they ever were.
Fans of other clubs wanting to know what enabled Swansea’s new owners not only to survive, but prosper beyond all reasonable expectation, will find hints rather than exposition. But the film rightly identifies unpretentious chairman Huw Jenkins and, on the field, Roberto Martínez, as the key individuals along with the commercial transformation enabled by the move to the council-funded Liberty Stadium in 2005. Sequences in which Jenkins’ and Martínez’s parents talk of their contrasting sons and the crumbling Vetch is juxtaposed with the Liberty are particularly effective.
Imperatives to tell the story in 99 minutes and make it personal inevitably claim victims. Chronology is sometimes shaky – although starting with Dylan Thomas’s “To begin at the beginning” then going almost straight to the 2011 play-off final shows a certain chutzpah. Managers Kenny Jackett, credited elsewhere by Jenkins as a vital system builder, and Paulo Sousa disappear, although John Toshack, manager last time the Swans went from the fourth to the first, looms Hitchcockishly at Wembley. The main loser, paradoxically given the emphasis on fans as owners, are the Swans Supporters Trust. That they were already in existence and not, as the film implies, created in response to Petty is no minor detail. An established, if new, Trust played a far greater role than one improvised out of crisis could have done.
Similarly concentration on the personal histories of directors serves, presumably unintentionally, to marginalise the Trust. The end title referring to them still owning 20 per cent of the club looks a forlorn late gesture at redress, and could, without spoiling the story, have added that Swansea remain in the Premier League and won the League Cup in 2013. But if JTAK is shaky on some detail, it gets the big picture right – a retelling worthy of a remarkable story.
From WSC 333 November 2014
Though it is easy to see why those engaged in one performative discipline awash with cash and fan adulation may be eager to try their hand at another, history is littered with examples of footballers turning to acting with distinctly mixed results. In largely well received new thriller Switch, Eric Cantona brings his usual brooding charisma to the role of Damien Forgeat, a detective on the trail of a young woman accused of murder. With the talent, versatility and self-confidence to match his ambition, Cantona has carved out an impressive acting career, beginning with a small role in Shekhar Kapur's period drama Elizabeth, packing in a host of serious-minded French-language fare and peaking with a sly, perfectly judged turn in Ken Loach's drama Looking For Eric.
It is said that football can provide a route out of poverty, with FIFA often claiming that the game's commercial revenues can "trickle down". Soka Afrika, a new feature-length documentary which follows two young African players as they try to make it in European football, sets out to show another side to this story.
The film's two subjects are well chosen. Ndomo Julien Sabo was playing youth football in Cameroon when a French agent persuaded his parents to mortgage the family home to "invest" in their son's future. Brought to Paris, he trained in a clandestine network of camps around the city's outskirts, playing trial games against other young imports.
When he got injured the agent disappeared, leaving 16-year-old Sabo completely alone and cold and hungry. He befriended fellow Africans sleeping rough and avoiding the police, and eventually managed to get back to Cameroon, but his parents were not overly happy to see him returning penniless. In Yaoundé he recovers his confidence and form, and returns to Europe better prepared for a professional career.
Ndomo's story is cut with that of Kermit Erasmus, who was spotted by Feyenoord playing youth football in South Africa. This move went much more smoothly – at only 18 he is playing first-team games for satellite club Excelsior, showing off his fancy mobile phone to a former school-mate in a Port Elizabeth township and playing a football game on his big-screen TV in his nice apartment in Holland. He's a cocky enough character but still likeable. We see him scoring three goals at the 2009 Under-20 World Cup in Egypt, but also struggling to make the step up with his club and the national senior team.
The film is stylishly put together by director Suridh Hassan and producers Simon Laub and Sam Potter, looking more like a relatively big-budget current affairs feature documentary than a typical fly-on-the-wall football film.
There are funky colourful credits and titles, an African drum-heavy soundtrack and edgy camerawork digitally filtered to bring out the greenness of Yaoundé and the greyness of Europe. The film-makers got great access, with the camera in the South African dressing room for pre-game team talks, on the touchline with openly unscrupulous agents at games in Cameroon and even with Sepp Blatter making a patronising contribution to a "Football for Hope" conference in South Africa.
The real star of the film is Jean-Claude Mbvoumin, a former Cameroon international who played club football in the 1990s in France before founding Paris-based NGO Culture Foot Solidaire. Mbvoumin describes the way promising young African players are brought to Europe as "child trafficking" and helps join the dots to make the film's case.
Clubs and agents in both Europe and Africa, national football federations and under-age coaches, FIFA, even players and their families are all complicit in the system. Everyone involved knows the unwritten rules of the game. There is no surprise when Sabo is dropped from the Cameroon Under-20 squad as he cannot afford to pay the required bribe. "Corruption is everywhere," Mbvoumin says. "I can't say one country is more corrupt than others." It would be better for everyone if African players stayed at home until they were ready – both in a footballing and personal sense – for the move to Europe he reckons.
Football for everyone in Soka Afrika is a means to get rich (or get by), not a goal in itself. Both Erasmus and Sabo really believe in the "rags to riches" possibilities. The film concentrates more on their concerns about making a living and building a career than training methods or tactics or trophies. We see a modern business structure feeding on the hopes of the resource and information poor. A few thrive and are successful, but many of those who make the big bucks are not the most deserving. The context could be any similar industry – perhaps fashion or music – where large numbers of talented young people with dreams are chewed up and spat out by the system.
Soka Afrika is produced by Masnomis and was screened in London during the Kicking & Screening Soccer Film Festival on September 23-29. For more information see sokaafrika.com
From WSC 296 October 201
Taylor Parkes watches a new film about Italia 90, a tournament that has assumed huge nostalgic significance for the English game
First published in 1991, Pete Davies’s All Played Out is still an astonishing read. An account of the author’s travels through Italy in a blazing World Cup summer, intercut with fly-on-the-wall stuff from an England camp to which he was granted an insane level of access (the subsequent tightening up is due in part to Davies himself, whose honesty cast the game’s top brass in a less than flattering light).
Lord knows they’ve tried. Ricky Tomlinson as England manager. Sean Bean tanking around in a Sheffield United strip. Sylvester Stallone between the sticks. Even Adam Faith as pint-sized proprietor of – oh yes – Leicester Forest (from a script by Jackie Collins, no less). All of them as inept, unconvincing and downright embarrassing as each other. So just why is it that films about football never work? Certainly not through lack of an audience. It’s a sport, lest we forget, adored by millions the world over, one with its own in-built dramatic arc. A ready-made fantasy in which slumdogs really can become superstars. Never mind Mike Bassett or Jimmy Grimble. Where’s our Raging Bull, our This Sporting Life? Even a Seabiscuit would do.
Taylor Parkes sits through a British comedy about Gillingham fans on a road trip
Pre-release publicity for The Shouting Men makes much of the fact that despite being a football film, it’s not about football violence – well, that’s something I suppose. It is, however, about beery laughs and mawkish sentiment, which is surely the next worst thing. Gillingham are drawn away to Newcastle in the Cup; a mismatched band of Gills fanatics make the trip in a clapped-out minibus, with much calamity along the way. Into this hollow shell of a plot almost any kind of comedy could have been poured, but a slack script, some non-performances and too much soapy slop make this a pretty trying experience.
Josh Widdicombe watches a remade film about football fighting
“London – The Eighties” the caption reads at the start of The Firm, and it is with brushstrokes this broad that Nick Love goes on to paint his latest picture of violence in days of yore. If coverage of the recent fighting at West Ham has taught us anything it’s that there are still a lot of people that find football hooliganism quite the turn on. Combine this with a yearning nostalgia for the Eighties that can surely only be shared by Norman Tebbit and T’Pau and you have The Firm.
Cameron Carter sits through Goal III
A quick fast-forward to the end credits of a film will tell you all you need to know about the project. In the case of Goal III, the third in a footballing trilogy – let us hope it is a trilogy – the character list is an absolute giveaway. “Mad Film Director”, “Cute Masseuse”, “Old Masseuse”, “Irate Skoda Driver” and “Bucharest Boiler” all point towards an artist that employs, shall we say, broad brush strokes. On actually watching this film it would appear that the holders of the brush are a FIFA committee and a couple of Hollyoaks writers.
Eric Cantona stars in two very different films, both released this month. Terry Staunton assesses his performances
Speaking to the Observer Sport Monthly in 2002, Christopher Eccleston lambasted film-makers for casting footballers, claiming it was a novelty practice that took jobs away from “proper” actors. Having recently worked with both Vinnie Jones, in the action movie Gone In 60 Seconds, and – uncomfortably – his own United hero Eric Cantona, in the costume drama Elizabeth, the award-winning thespian’s remarks carried some weight.
Taylor Parkes reviews two films about football fighting which despite contrasting styles offer similarly dispiriting end products
It’s not hard to see why film-makers are so fond of football hooliganism. Like the slasher movie or the zombie flick, the hooligan film is a ready-made genre that requires little imagination – it comes complete with thrills and spills, a handful of simple and durable plotlines, obvious characters and motivations, and the possibility of redemption. It gives your film, however poor, immediate appeal to people who like this sort of thing (thugs or ex-thugs, thin-armed daydreamers with a prurient interest in violence), and you can deflect criticism by claiming your movie is “authentic” and “gritty” –even when it is, in truth, no more realistic than In The Night Garden. The fact that your product is repulsive on every level need not concern you. Indeed, it’s kind of the point.