Victor Buhler tells us why African football is “beautiful”
Africa often gets short shrift. Warfare as a direct consequence of the scrabble for its ample resources – which should allow its 54 nations to be self-sufficient – has been the catalyst for famine, disease and poverty. Colonial and Postcolonial history has seen the continent’s rich culture used to create divides. And a relatively young and growing population (over half the continent’s population is under 25) is in danger of stifling growth when it could be promoting it. The struggle to maintain a basic standard of living looms ominously for the next generation of Africans; 34 African countries were ranked “very low” on the UN’s 2011 Human Development Index.
But one outlet that is giving young Africans hope is Sport. It allows them to meet and exercise their passions through playing and supporting. One individual who has seen the merits of football far beyond the realms of European stadia and customised number plates is award-winning independent film-maker Victor Buhler.
The director of “Rikers High”, which was nominated for an Emmy and won best documentary in 2005 at the Tribeca Film Festival, returns to the art form with his new film, “The Beautiful Game”, the culmination of four years hard work. The film was conceived as a story to capture the World Cup coming to Africa for the first time in 2010, but after a serious accident, the Singaporean born Londoner began to see football as more than just a game; is changing the lives of Africans on and off the pitch.
Following an exclusive screening at the University of Westminster Cinema – heralded as the birthplace of British cinema after the Lumière brothers decided to show their first ever screening of moving images there in 1896 – I met up with the socially conscious and charismatic director who is also a postgraduate student at the university. In the serenity of a Central London square, dressed in a crisp light blue shirt coupled with a suave pair of brown boots to match, he lit up the mild March afternoon with a rapid-fire discussion about film, football in Africa and his hopes for the continent’s future.
“The film is only partially about football, it’s really about our experiences collectively as a film-making group and what we really found inspiring”, he explained. “So in a sense the film is really about determination, ambition, survival and spirit.”
“The Beautiful Game” is a character-based feature documentary which interweaves seven compelling stories from six African countries: Kenya, Egypt, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Each character involved – young or old – has a tale that highlights how football is a tool for social change, and how imperative the game will be for the future of the continent.
This is especially evident in the case of promising midfielder Emmanuel from Ghana. “E-man” is fourteen when we begin the film and enrolled at the Right To Dream Academy, a professional sports and leadership academy that nurtures young and underprivileged talent in Ghana. Then, as the film progresses, we see him given an incredible chance to go on a scholarship to a prestigious school in Santa Barbara, California.
Buhler enthused: “Suddenly he pulls up at this school and he’s under a lot of pressure to survive. Everyone is relying on him to become the big brother of the family and he knows his family’s hopes are riding on him”
Suzanne, a fan from the Ivory Coast whose life has been marked by the iron grip of civil war, shows how supporting a football team can also change once forsaken circumstances for the better. The watershed moment that inspired her to create a women’s supporters group was when Chelsea striker and Ivory Coast Captain Didier Drogba made a plea on national TV before the World Cup in 2006. He and the rest of his team-mates implored the West African nation to stop fighting.
The film-maker noted how the supporters group Suzanne formed helped introduce women to football and resolve tensions.
“Her entire family were killed by the civil war, so she formed a group as she felt there were too many men in the stadiums and they were always causing problems,” he said. “She said, it was time for women to be there, as people see us and they calm down.”
There’s no surprise that one of the film’s most animated moments sees Suzanne lead her group – a colourful sea of orange – singing and skanking in buoyant style en route to an Ivory Coast match flanked by heavy militia weary of possible skirmishes.
The game as a positive vehicle for change even resonates with the younger end of the age spectrum such as in the story of eleven year old Charity in Kenya. Hailing from the sprawling Mathare slum in Nairobi, she’s a member of the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) which organises football leagues and rewards youngsters for doing community service as well as winning matches.
“She [Charity] runs one of the largest groups in this organisation and FIFA have even recognised her as the youngest football official in the world, which is incredible!” Buhler exclaimed with a beaming smile.
The setup of the MYSA is structured to maintain a constant flow of participants – at the age of 20 you leave the organisation but are also encouraged to recommend other young people for training.
The theme of hope and positivity for Africa is shared by a number of figures from politics who make appearances in the film, such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu as well as figures from international football – manager Jose Mourinho among them – and African footballers past and present including Roger Milla, Jay-Jay Okocha, Sulley Muntari and the Touré Brothers.
Buhler recalled that his experience of filming in Africa was both challenging and rewarding, somewhat like the struggle of those featured in his work. But he noted that, despite the tough road ahead, football and the future of Africa are inextricably linked.
“I feel you can measure African development by the way football has improved. The way the world looks after Africa needs to change and you need Africans creating things for themselves,” he mused. “Many talented Africans are returning and bringing world views and informed ideas back to Africa and I really think bringing that kind of experience back to Africa will be very interesting.”
Football as a form of therapy coupled with conscience cinematography can go some way to ensuring social responsibility and raising awareness for a continent that is slowly becoming self-sustainable.
Buhler said he believed relaying information to the individual rather than the masses is the way forward with film.
“There was a terrible quote which Stalin had; that ‘The death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic’. I think that happens a lot in Africa; when you talk about Darfur, when you talk about people dying of Malaria but then you only really do something about it when you hear the story of one person who really affects you,” he remarked. “I do believe that films can help to redress that balance, not just films, but in this day and age, it can be magazines, it can be social media and other things. In a sense, you always need to bring back the individual.”
“The Beautiful Game” comes to screens in Summer 2012.Tagged in: adofo, Africa, african, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, buhler, Cote d'Ivoire, Desmond Tutu, Didier Drogba, FIFA, football, human development index, Ivory Coast, Jay-Jay Okocha, Kenya, Kofi Annan, lumiere, Mathare Youth Sports Association, mourinho, nairobi, Nigeria, right to dream academy, Roger Milla, santa barbara, south africa, Sulley Muntari, The Beautiful Game, Touré, victor buhler, world cup
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