STIFF Review: I Speak Soccer


While everybody flocks to SIFF, there's another film festival going on in town. STIFF (Seattle's True Independent Film Festival) features all sorts of good stuff--including the festival's opener, I Speak Soccer: A Documentary About the International Language of Pickup, written, directed, and edited by my friend Terry Kegel, a Seattleite. (Other disclosures: I had a movie in STIFF last year, and in the credits, Terry lists me as his legal advisor, mainly for connecting him with people who actually practice law.)

That said, I Speak Soccer is an engrossing look at the reach of pickup soccer and the culture and self-perceptions of those who play it. As Kegel tells it, he grew up a soccer-obsessed kid in a basketball-obsessed culture, though he knew that somewhere beyond our shores there were people who shared his passion. So when he got older, he traveled the world, playing tons of pickup, and filming the games and the players. The movie opens with footage of pickup games in alleys, courtyards, empty lots, gyms, etc. in Peru, Turkey, Israel, Brazil, South Africa, Thailand, and Nigeria.

The focus narrows to three sets of pickup games--one on a beach in Jacairape, Brazil, one on a municipal hard-top court Chiang Mai, Thailand, and one on a bleak roadside field in Ibadan, Nigeria. In each, the players monologize on the unique characteristics of their brand of pickup, though this is often a launching point for their thoughts on all manner of socioeconomic phenomena. One might occasionally wonder if some of the extrapolations on national character are a stretch--nations are complex, and a beachside pickup game might have quite a different flavor from one in a favela, for example. Moreover, as Kegel notes, pickup is dominated by men; the voices of women are largely absent. Nevertheless, it's fascinating to hear the players talk.

We get an older, lighter-skinned Brazilian man telling us what a happy country Brazil is, and how the pickup games are a manifestation of that, and then a younger, darker-skinned player from the same game talking about how the violence among and marginalization of Jacairape's poor is worsening, and how soccer is a way to transcend or escape that. In Chiang Mai, the players stay humble, repeating government talking points on exercise and drugs with almost eerie frequency, while in Nigeria, there's a not-so-quiet-desperation, a defiant belief among the players that life is passing them by, that they and their friends could do something in the world if only they were given the opportunity. In all three locations, the natives recount what they believe to be American misperceptions of their culture, and then offer their corrections.

But the best thing about I Speak Soccer is the footage that lets you be present in these places. The laughter-filled games in Brazil, with the tide as a sideline, look like one of the world's most enjoyable ways to spend an afternoon. In Chiang Mai, you hear the buzz of the motorbikes and see the sheen of sweat on the players' torsos reflect under the dim lights of the courts--it's like the humidity seeps right through the screen. Finally, the Nigerian field is like the opposite of the Brazilian beach--the trucks roar by at breakneck speeds, honking their horns, separated from the players by nothing, and the players kick and shove and taunt each other all over the hard, cratered pitch, taking pride in their refusal to call fouls.

Finally, it's worth noting that Kegel will be donating 100% of his profits (he's not reimbursing himself for time or travel expenses) to Right to Play, "an international humanitarian organization that uses sport and play programs to improve health, develop life skills, and foster peace for children and communities in the most disadvantaged areas of the world."

I Speak Soccer plays today at 1:30 at the Rendezvous' Jewel Box Theater, tomorrow at 4 PM at the Jewel Box Theater and then at the times and places listed here. A note on the STIFF showings--if they appear to be sold out online, that doesn't mean you can't get in--the festival sets aside tickets for sale at the door, Just get there early.

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