As one of the co-directors of the documentary film “Pelada,” filmmaker Ryan White, a graduate of Duke University, travelled to 25 countries around the world to capture the passion behind pick-up soccer games in places like Kenya, Argentina, Iran, and Japan.
White, along with co-directors and former soccer players Luke Boughen, Gwendolyn Oxenham, and Rebekah Fergusson, focused on the stories of the people playing soccer in each country, and also touched on Luke and Gwendolyn’s realization that their dreams to become professional soccer players may never happen.
I’m sure there are many independent documentary filmmakers out there wanting to know how you were able to find funding for a film that basically spans the globe. It sounds expensive.
Well, now I realize how lucky we were because we began the movie in 2007 before the recession. We began the movie with a grant from Duke because three of the four of us [directors] went there. We had a meeting with the provost who had actually been a soccer player his entire life. He gave us the grant to get us all started. That got us off the ground and got us to South America to shoot. We came back and made a short film about South America and shopped it around to different investors. We put it online for the soccer community. I think the final tally in donations from the soccer community was around $100,000. They really believed in the film. After the recession we were living every filmmaker cliché – sharing apartments in L.A. and eating peanut butter and jelly and living a broken, independent filmmaker lifestyle.
So, other than the footage you shot in South America, how did you pitch the film to investors?
I think our real pitch was that this was a movie that had never been made before. For whatever reason, no one had made a movie exploring the world through the lens of pick-up soccer. The inspiration for the movie was the documentary “Endless Summer” from the 60s. Both Gwendolyn’s dad and my dad sort of raised us on that movie. We really wanted to make a story about people’s lives through the lens of this sport. That’s how we pitched it…as a more in-depth soccer version of “Endless Summer.”
Along with a theme about playing for the love of the game, the film also touches on the idea that no matter how good you are at something, people have to face reality and realize that not all dreams come true. Can you talk a little about that idea and how it played a part in the film?
The journey for Luke and Gwendolyn became the narrative arch for our film. It wasn’t so much something we planned on concentrating on to be honest with you. We were really out to capture other people’s stories. We wanted to make a movie that appealed to a general audience. We didn’t want to make a soccer movie that was only interesting to soccer players and soccer fans. I think we all have different conflicts that have an overlapping familiarity of questioning what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. Those issues are universal. We’ve been finding out people are responding a lot to that after screenings.
Have you ever felt like that as a documentary filmmaker? I mean, this is a great film, but it’s so hard to break into the film industry especially in this genre.
That’s interesting; I’ve never been asked that before. Documentary filmmaking is not the easiest route to take as I’m sure you’re aware. I’ve become very aware now that I’ve been doing it for 10 years and I’m broke. But to me it’s so fulfilling. I’ve made a living out of it so far, so I think I’ll stick with it. I think it’s an interesting parallel to [Luke and Gwendolyn’s] lives because at some point you have to make sacrifices. I certainly will as a documentary filmmaker. Sometimes we have to take side jobs to pay the bills. I don’t think that trend is going to stop anytime soon in my life. But I truly plan on sticking to documentary filmmaking. I love it too much to ever give it up.
Your crew travels to some interesting and sometimes dangerous parts of the world. Did traveling to these 25 countries over the last few years open your eyes up to social, cultural, and political differences you never thought of before and were you ever worried for your safety?
Absolutely. Political tension never stopped us from going places. If there was political tension or civil war or terrorist attacks or something like that that didn’t stop us. There were a lot of things going on in Kenya when we went there in 2008. The same happened in Iran. Also, the most interesting pick-up games usually happened in the poorest neighborhoods. It definitely opened our eyes to world issues. You see things on the news but when you there I think you get a more objective prospective. [Problems in different countries] are not dominating the way people live. People are still getting by day to day. Violence is not their entire world. I think it’s undeniable to me now after making this film that there is a magic to [soccer], which allowed us to go to some of these places we should have never been allowed to go.