New York, 24 December 2003 | Filmmaker Kate Dawson is presently editing the latest project from her Chick Flick Productions, Grass Ceiling, focusing on the Women's United Soccer Association careers and World Cup aspirations of twins Lorrie and Ronnie Fair, China's Gao Hong and Nigeria's Mercy Akide. Dawson and crew spent 17 months with the players and hired film crews to capture Gao and Akide with their national teams in Beijing and Lagos. A story about the production, focusing on Akide of the W-League's Hampton Roads Piranhas, appeared in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (Vicki L. Friedman, "Piranhas' Akide: A Rising Star," 25 July 2003).
PREMIERE FOR 'GRASS CEILING'
GG: How does each of the players contribute, in your view, to the narrative of the film?
Lorrie and Ronnie Fair. Copyright © 2003 Chick Flick Productions. Used by permission.
KD: The film's original intention was to illustrate the strength and drive of women. Each of these players has proven, in different ways, that you can play like a man on the soccer field, and maintain your femininity off the field. I think that's something all little girls need to know and that philosophy translates well in all aspects of life.
Lorrie Fair: As the youngest player on the '99 World Cup team, she carries a lot of weight on her shoulders. She's incredibly intelligent, aggressive, driven and decisive. She has a strong hold on her career in a sport where players have limited control. Lorrie has a tough exterior, and it’s that hard shell that helped her deal with her father’s death. But she has also admitted that soccer was very therapeutic during that difficult time. She took out her anger on her opponents, which made her a more proficient soccer player. Soccer was an outlet that helped her focus her emotions while in a family that was apprehensive to express the pain of losing a father. Lorrie is an inspiration to thousands of little girls.
Ronnie Fair: A player whom you would think was consistently in her sister’s shadow, but Ronnie is a star in her own right. She graduated from Stanford with a biology degree and plans to become a doctor. She's also an expressive, enthusiastic and driven woman—on and off the field. While Lorrie's skill in the sport may surpass her sister's, Ronnie is successful because of her pure love for soccer. Sibling rivalry between these two girls was left on the field years ago. They're supportive of each other, and they're best friends. When their father died, Ronnie expressed her grief more than the rest of the family—and all admit that her method was the healthier way to react. At the beginning of the last season of the WUSA, Ronnie was cut from the New York Power. She considered quitting and moving on to medical school. But Ronnie refused to leave on someone else's terms. She trained with the San Diego Spirit and was chosen for the squad. Ronnie represents a woman whose life isn't tied to one career or goal; she has a lot going for her.
Gao Hong. Copyright © 2003 Chick Flick Productions. Used by permission.
Gao Hong: Gao is amazing. At 36, she was told by countless coaches to hang up her cleats. She was forced to endure numerous operations for sensitive medical conditions and she was slow to recover. But Gao loves soccer. As a teenager, she was forced to play soccer by her factory boss. In typical Chinese tradition, Gao accepted her fate and became arguably the best female goalkeeper in the world. But after China's devastating loss to the US in '99, Gao felt ostracized by her coach on the national team. In the WUSA, she has learned English at an amazing rate and was embraced by her teammates. After she was cut from the New York Power, she was crushed. She returned to Canada and waited to find out if she would play in the 2003 World Cup. Her Chinese coach felt she was not strong enough, and she was not placed on the player list. It was hard for anyone who knows her. Gao is sweet, strong, expressive and honest. When she explains how parents in China don't want their children to play soccer because there's no money in the sport, it broke my heart. Gao was constantly on the verge of tears when she spoke of how she overcame the odds after her surgeries. She's a fighter and an inspiration. China should have chosen her to be in goal during the World Cup. Gao has exhibited enormous strength in a culture that doesn't encourage that attribute in women.
Mercy Akide. Copyright © 2003 Chick Flick Productions. Used by permission.
Mercy Akide: "Lord have Mercy." She's a bulldozer on the field and a pussycat off the field. No one has a bigger laugh than Mercy Akide. She's got a gorgeous smile, a bright disposition, and a forward drive that can knock a defender unconscious. Mercy is incredible—she helps support her family in Nigeria; she was responsible for paying for her family's home out of her paycheck from soccer. But Mercy is conflicted—she was cut from her WUSA team because she couldn't grasp the American style of play. It was difficult because she depends on staying in the United States, not only to support her family—but also to maintain her status as Africa's premier soccer player. Mercy's family is also incredible; they're so proud of her. In a country that is very patriarchal, her parents have encouraged her to play soccer for years. Mercy represents someone who is willing to roll the dice and fight for the outcome to come out a winner. She carries the hopes of many in her country on her back.
GG: What were the unexpected elements of the story that entered after you had started filming?
KD: Wow, what didn't happen? The first major incident was when Mercy's coach, Carlos Juarez, was fired because of the team's poor performance. Then Mercy was given a red card for head-butting a goalkeeper on the Philadelphia Charge. After that, nothing was the same for Mercy. She sat on the bench for the majority of the remainder of the season and was cut shortly thereafter.
I had heard of the legend of keeper Gao Hong and was excited about filming her in action for the New York Power. However, she was still recovering from surgery when I began filming—and Gao sat on the bench for many, many games. When she did play, she wasn't the same. She seemed, at times, intimidated in the net—which is unlike her. So my footage of Gao being Gao is very limited.
I didn't expect Ronnie Fair to be cut from the New York Power. She was part of a very elite group of players who started every game that last season, so obviously she was an asset. She was told that budget cuts forced the coach to reduce the roster. Selfishly, I thought "very poor timing." For the first season of filming, I lived in San Francisco so I could cover Mercy in San Diego. For the second season, I moved back to New York to cover Lorrie, Ronnie and Gao. So in 2003—both Ronnie and Gao were cut from New York and Ronnie moved to San Diego. It did not fit well into my master plan.
The biggest shock of the entire film was when Lorrie Fair was not picked for the 2003 World Cup. It was devastating. I couldn't believe it and neither could Lorrie. When the national team played Nigeria in Philadelphia, I drove down to see the game and Lorrie. She took it in stride, but was still digesting what happened when I left her home. That being said, I have faith in Lorrie. She always has a back-up plan and she'll pull through. She's one of the most talented people I've ever met.
GG: What do each of these women's stories say more broadly about the position of women in athletics? Is there a message about the aspirations of women that you hope the film communicates?
KD: I think there's a misconception in [the United States] that a strong, independent and driven woman is either a "bitch" or "masculine." These women prove that neither is true. You can be strong and soft at the same time. The girls are worshiped in their own countries, including the twins. There's nothing more inspiring than seeing thousands of little girls line up to have Gao Hong sign her autograph in Beijing. Mercy Akide's mother says little boys and girls follow her home, begging to have Mercy teach them to kick a ball. Lorrie Fair received phone calls at her home from kids who were crying because the WUSA closed its doors. The women represent how far girls can go. For Mercy and Gao, they represent the few who are able to escape from oppressive countries and live the American dream—and they did it through soccer.
GG: Was it your intention originally to depict four non-Anglo personalities, and what contribution does the players' difference in this respect—difference from the American "norm," if there is such a thing—make to the narrative of Grass Ceiling?
|‘What I learned is that in the game of soccer,
there’s no time to worry about the color or culture of your opponents.
By the time you realize
they’re different, they’ve scored a goal against you.’|
KD: I did intentionally pick four non-white players. Soccer [in the United States] is known, primarily, as a middle-class, white sport. Very few kids get out of the ghetto by playing soccer. So I wanted to show that there are people outside of this country, outside of the commonly known soccer community, who want to use soccer to fulfill their dreams—not just to compete in a sport, but to better their lives. The twins were exceptionally interesting because their mother is from China and their father was American. When he passed away, their mother dealt with his death by continuing on as if nothing happened. Even now, she admits that might have been a mistake. The girls are still traversing the cultural differences between them and their mother. What I learned is that in the game of soccer, there's no time to worry about the color or culture of your opponents. By the time you realize they're different, they've scored a goal against you.
GG: Does the cessation of the WUSA and that only one of your film's main personalities (Akide) realized the goal of making a World Cup roster make the film's ultimate message more ambiguous than you had planned? Or is the ambiguity a strength in the documentary format?
KD: I hate to admit it, but when bad things happen to documentary subjects—that is usually good news for the film itself. I think that most intelligent viewers don't walk into a documentary film expecting to see a happy ending. Documentaries are a picture of life, and life isn't always rosy.
My ending is very ambiguous; although Mercy did make it to the World Cup, her team performed very poorly and her country was not particularly supportive when she returned. The demise of the WUSA was not a huge shock; it was well known that it had been hemorrhaging money for years. Of course, I didn't expect all of this to happen in the two short years I spent with the girls. But, the bottom line is this: no matter what happens to the WUSA or to the sport of soccer, these are all bright and inventive women. They all have loving families, loyal friends and bright futures. So—in some ways, the film does have a happy ending.