Cinema | In ‘Tiro libre,’ walls of separation and misunderstanding

Chicago | A film conceived by Chileans about the aspirations of Palestine’s national team has stirred a Chicago film festival—at least judging by an 11-page torrent of comments that debates which filmmaker deserves credit for the idea and which has the more credible connections to justice struggles (Ed M. Koziarski, “Social Justice, with Soccer,” Chicago Reader, Apr 3).

In Spanish and English, writers claiming to be related to the filmmakers and even someone posting in the name one of the project’s creators, Nelson Soza, vie for the right to tell the story of Tiro libre (Free Kick). The 117-minute documentary has taken a four-year journey to its festival debuts last year in Trieste, Italy, and earlier this month at the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

Piña speaks with interviewer Carla Maldonado, of El Comercio of Ecuador, during the Festival del Cinema Latino Americano in Trieste, Italy, in Nov 07. He did not attend the Chicago screenings. (© 2007 Festival del Cinema Latino Americano)

Alon Raab, writing for the Global Game when the film had the working title Futbol Palestina 2006 (22 Apr 05), interviewed Soza three years ago as Palestine’s national team made its way through World Cup qualifying. Soza, listed as producer at the time, along with collaborator Marcelo Piña experienced the woes familiar to the documentary filmmaker: the continued need for financing and, in this case, competition with a second documentary crew filming its own project, Goal Dreams (known originally as World Cup Inshallah), released in 2006 to worldwide praise.

In both films, the West Bank barrier (or “separation fence” or “apartheid wall”) and its network of security checkpoints that severely restrict movement in the Palestinian territories become a metaphor for sport’s potential to bring transcendent purpose to life (see 11 Jan 08 for how these separations affect women’s football). Sport, especially football since FIFA’s acceptance of Palestine to membership in 1998, offers Palestine identity, in Eric Hobsbawm‘s phrase, by providing “a team of eleven named people” to stand in for a fractured whole. The Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, which organizes nonviolent resistance against land seizures and the destruction of Palestinian homes, sponsored the world premiere of Goal Dreams in Jun 06 by projecting the film onto the wall itself—“an endless line of 26 foot concrete slabs,” writes ICAHD’s Jeff Halper at Tikkun, “running through the campus of al-Quds University in the West Bank town of Abu Dis” (“Watching World Cup Soccer on the Wall,” 27 Jun 06). Halper continues:

I was moved to say what often wells up in me when I see common people coping with checkpoints, with unimaginable suffering and constant harrassment, with a 40-year Occupation that threatens to become a full-fledged apartheid regime in the next few months (in which, horror of horrors, my people are cast as the Afrikaners)—and that is, kol hakavod [all honor] to Palestinians who maintain their humanity, their sanity, the very fabric of their lives under inhumane conditions, who even insist that their country be represented with all the others on the football pitch.

One cannot be sure what went wrong in the process of creating Tiro libre, but Soza’s name becomes unattached from the project sometime in 2005 or 2006. In 2005, writing for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, he promotes a six-minute teaser for the film, screened in Chicago as a fund-raising and educational tool. He tells Raab of his and Piña’s fellow feeling for the Palestinian cause, given Chileans’ experience with authoritarian rule under Pinochet and the large Palestinian community in Chile, tracing lineage to the so-called Four Jorges who were part of an 1850s’ exodus during the Crimean War (see Mark Holston, “Proud Palestinians of Chile,” Américas, November/December 2005, p. 5). “We were not unfamiliar with the word ‘Palestino,’ ” says Soza, referring to Club Deportivo Palestino, a first-division team in Santiago founded by Palestinian immigrants in 1920. The team plays in the traditional Palestinian colors of red, green and white.

Football as an influence on Israel’s relationships with her neighbors comes through in the report on Abu Ghosh-Mevaserret and its match against a Druze side from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. For more on unified Arab-Israeli teams, see the recent documentaries Sons of Sakhnin United and We Too Have No Other Land (4:53). (© 2008 Football’s Hidden Story)

The idea for Tiro libre was to focus on several players, including those who came from the Palestinian diaspora community. In the most recent qualifying campaign, for the 2010 World Cup, the side included at least one American, Omar Jarun, now with the Vancouver Whitecaps. The pursuit of such stories across continents adds to the movie’s appeal, but also to the expense. In an interview with El Comercio (Quito) at the Trieste festival last year, Piña says he logged time in 13 countries and in 20 cities. The film’s entry in Trieste lists four countries of origin: Chile, the United States, Egypt and Kuwait. Piña tells the Chicago Reader that he spent $350,000 on the film, although the trail of comments, reputedly from Soza and those with insider knowledge of the situation, alleges that Soza’s former colleague did not maintain accountability with investors.

To some extent, the comments seek to cast doubt on Piña’s own claims of allegiance with the Palestinian cause. A former film student at Columbia College and a doctoral student in social and cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois—both campuses in Chicago—Piña in his interview with El Comercio says that “my generation grew up in the Chilean dictatorship, and we are marked. Whenever I saw the Palestinian cause it was as the Chilean cause. In my country there are 500,000 Palestinians, and my first love was a Palestinian girl” (Carla Maldonado, “Un joven chileno hizo un gol en Trieste con el conflicto palestino”).

He expands his story in the interview with the Chicago paper, recalling his early memories of the Augusto Pinochet regime, which took power in a 1973 coup. Piña remembers kids setting up barricades and clashing with police in his Santiago neighborhood: “The cops came and started shooting and we had to go under the bed. I could hear the bullet shells falling on the roof of my house. Winters in the early 80s felt a lot more gray and cold and hopeless. I thought, ‘Is this ever going to end? Am I always going to live like this?’ ”

Among 350 hours of footage shot for Tiro libre is an interview with Yasser Arafat in Mar 04, not long before his death in November of that year. Arafat takes tea with players and hands each a $1,000 bonus check.

The Palestinian side’s 2010 World Cup qualifying adventure already has concluded. They lost a two-leg elimination qualifier to Singapore in fall 07, assessed a 0–3 loss in the second leg, by forfeit, when they were barred from traveling by Israeli authorities. This time no cameras would have been present.

Additional resources

BBC Radio 4 as part of its Crossing Continents series airs a documentary, “Football in the Holy Land,” on Apr 24. The reporter is David Goldblatt, author of The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (see 5 Jan 08).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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