Cinema | Trading ‘fruitcakes’ for fútbol as ‘Soccer Project’ reaches La Paz

“Soccer creates this incredible intimacy,” Oxenham, referring to the idea behind The Soccer Project, tells the Gulf Breeze News (Nathan Dominic, “GBHS Grad Nets Film Debut,” 9 Aug 07). “We don’t want it to be a heavy-handed film, ‘Oh, soccer connects the world.’ We don’t want to talk about that. Hopefully, the images will do that themselves. In Afghanistan, girls are playing for the first time, and they’re wearing traditional head-to-toe garb and playing soccer. Then we’ll be in Brazil with old guys in Speedos.”

The filmmakers are presently compiling a 15-minute preview to help attract investors. Already an interlude in Los Angeles has borne fruit. Oxenham spotted David Beckham at a traffic light and handed him some raw footage on DVD.

The following appeared originally on the Soccer Project blog on 21 Dec 07.

From left, White, Boughen, Oxenham and Fergusson. “Soccer was everywhere,” White says of his own world travels before work on The Soccer Project began. (© The Soccer Project. Used by permission.)

La Paz, Bolivia | San Pedro Prison sits behind San Pedro Plaza—a bustling square in the center of La Paz. Couples sit on benches around a fountain, kids chase pelotas in the grass and women set up stands for the Thursday-through-Sunday bread market. Our hostel is on the side of the square opposite the prison.

At San Pedro, the inmates are in charge. Though the guards patrol the outside, they don’t enter the inside. Within high concrete walls, San Pedro inmates run their own society. Wives and children are allowed inside, cells are for sale and soccer passes the time.

Our first morning in La Paz, we sit on a bench and watch the gate of the prison and the guards who surround it. It’s hard to find the nuances of language that would convince an armed guard to unlock the gates for you and let you wander in with your video camera.

Carrying our snazzy postcard, we stroll up to the men with green uniforms and guns, attempting to explain the merits of our project and why the San Pedro inmates would want to be a part of it.

We are not sent away outright. Speaking enthusiastically, a guard points us to a side door where we are to talk to the director. The man at this door does send us away. He chases us out as he speaks in fast Spanish we can’t fully understand … though we do make out something about the U.S. Embassy.

Dispirited but not defeated, we take a cab to the embassy. While things are often closed on Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes even Mondays or Fridays, nothing is ever closed on a Wednesday … except, we discover, the U.S. Embassy. Apparently, if you lose your passport or have your child abducted on a Wednesday, you must wait until Thursday.

So we return to our hostel and continue to gaze at the prison across the square. We wander downstairs to the Internet café and spend enough time there to make friends with the owner. He shows us pictures of himself dancing in traditional clothing, and we tell him about our desire to play fútbol inside San Pedro. At this, he walks to the doorway, whistles at some men in uniform and gestures them toward us. Five minutes later, we’re being escorted by soldiers to the director’s office.

The director writes down directions to the Bolivian Ministry of Prisons on a pink piece of paper. “You need to speak to Alejandro. If he gives you permission, you may talk to the prisoners,” he tells us. “It is difficult, but not impossible.”

At 8 a.m., we sit at a long conference table and find out that Alejandro, who has a scar running the length of his face, is an avid fútbol player. Within 15 minutes, we have permission. “But,” he clarifies, “you must talk with the prisoners—they decide.”

The following day, three elected prison leaders listen with rapt attention as Rebekah and Luke explain our film. The leaders are enthusiastic and make insightful comments about the connectivity of the world’s game. They nod with approval, and then they say, “And now for the painful part … what it’s going to cost you.”

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