Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Kicking + Chatting: Tango-ing with Gavin Sullivan, writer of "Argentina Futbol Club"

Club Atlético River Plate is the most successful club in Argentina: 110 years in the first division, 33 domestic championships, two Copa Libertadores trophies, and an all-time player register that includes such legends as Ángel Labruna, Oscar Más, Enzo Francescoli, Hernan Crespo, and Ariel Ortega.
River_618113tAnd yet, next season, they will play in Argentina's second division for the first time in their long, illustrious history. This week, the lost a two-game relegation-promotion playoff with minnows Belgrano, including a humiliating 1-1 draw at their classic stadium, El Monumental, in the second leg that sealed their fate, sparking riots among the most devoted fans, known as the Barra Brava.
They are also, of course, one half of the world's original Superclásico: the Buenos Aires derby with Boca Juniors. Or were. Next season, they will not meet Boca in the regular season.
Which gives even more poignancy to Juan Pablo Roubió's film Argentina Fútbol ClubThe documentary wanders directly into the heart of the world's most passionate rivalry.
K+S's Noah Davis recently chatted with Gavin Sullivan, the film's American writer, about the emotions of Argentine fútbol, the complexities of violence, and, of course, which side of the Superclásico he falls on. 
Kicking + Screening: There are dozens of great rivalries around the world. Why Boca and River?
Gavin Sullivan: Principally as a result of having lived in Buenos Aires for four years, and realizing that what I was witnessing on any given Sunday (on any given pitch) was without parallel in its intensity, and fervor. But it was really seeing how one's identity is ultimately shaped by these clubs. Upon entering any social event, BBQ, work meeting, or yerba mate chat, the question of "De que club sos?" (From what club are you?) is inevitable, and the answer was fascinating: "Soy de Boca" (I am from Boca), in much the same way that one would say "I am Catholic, Jewish, Black, White, American, Argentine, from Brooklyn, from Seattle, et cetera." This was the jumping off point for looking at why Argentines have this uniquely intense passion for their beloved sport.
Argentina-Futbol-Club-flyer-smallWhat we found in the root of these futbol clubs was a "social" element that binds them to their local neighborhoods and communities. What is often overlooked is that Argentine futbol clubs are not privately owned businesses. They are owned by the members of the club, who pay monthly dues in much the same way someone in the US would pay for their gym membership. In return "socios," or members get access to all of the social and community facilities that the club offers: weight room facilities, tracks, BBQs, swimming pools, day care, and in the case of River Plate, elementary, high school, and university education. Yes, there is a Universidad de River Plate. 
Our angle in Argentina Futbol Club is to look at whether this social relationship to the club engenders a closer tie and passion between the member, i.e. "fan" for the futbol team that plays on Sundays? The logic goes: I spent my summers swimming at the pool at the Club de Velez, had my first kiss when I was 13 at the club, so when I watch Club de Velez play on Sundays, a part of who I am is represented. Soy de Velez.
Honestly, in Argentina there are even more intense rivalries than Boca-River. Rosario Central vs. Newell's Old Boys, for example, is far and away more intense. When this Clásico is played, the city of Rosario is literally divided between the two.
Yet the magnitude of the Superclásico between Boca and River is undeniable, and really the greatest representation of not only the phenomenon that is Argentine futbol, but of the passion inherent in all competitive sports. Any true fan, of any sport, in any part of the world can sympathize and identify by the love, hate, joy, and pain that is felt and expressed in Argentina Fútbol Club.
K+S: Both Boca and River have fallen on some tougher times. Did that change your approach at all?
Sullivan: Funny you mention this. Yes, in the past two years especially, Boca and River have been eclipsed by Estudiantes, in particular, and most recently Velez.
Boca-celebrateWe actually filmed in late 2008 going into early 2009, and at the time of filming Boca and River were fighting for first place in the Primera A Clausura championship, while at the same time battling to advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores. Exciting times.
The situation has most definitely changed. But you know, listen to tango, read some Borges. Argentines thrive on melancholy. I truly believe the passions of most Argentine futbol fans are solidified during the woes. Nothing brings people closer together than pain. Some of my fondest memories in writing and producing this documentary was going out to watch some of the games played in Primera B, at Clubs that hadn't won anything significant in generations, and finding the same level of dedication, love, passion, and community as found in Boca and River. It is something greater than futbol, again, it is the shared human experience be it through pain or joy.
K+S: Was there ever a time when Juan Pablo or any other filmmakers felt in danger?
Sullivan: No. Not in the least bit. There is of course violence, and it happens (much less than is so often portrayed), but my lasting impression of the barra bravas or hooligans, is one of camaraderie and love for the neighborhood, club, and sport. The issue of "violence in futbol" is an ongoing debate that spikes every time there is a brawl or something, but there are so many angles to the issue. And it is always interesting to watch how much air time is spent discussing the downfall of violence in futbol, instead of covering the brutal violence played out day-in and day-out in the villas, or ghettos, of Buenos Aires, and the lack of time spent debating solutions.
K+S: What's next for you? Pacific Northwest Football Club?
Sullivan: Interestingly enough, as soon as I returned home, I went to a college football game at the University of Washington, and found some obvious similarities. I believe college sports, and its relationship to the local community and the identity/passion it engenders to be the closest to the social and futbol club phenomenon felt in Argentina.
I actually approached the UW Athletic Department with an idea to do a very similar documentary on the tradition and passion of the football program, and was able to negotiate a pretty good arrangement by which we would have full access to archives and field access, etc. However, towards the tail end of March Madness this year, Frontline did a great investigative piece on "Money and March Madness," which openly challenged the concept of the "student-athlete."
In it, they sit down with Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, and pushed him hard on the paradox of a multibillion dollar industry in which the players receive zero financial gain. Just so happens Emmert didn't come off so well, and he happens to be the ex-president of UW. Although I can't show direct causation, I received an email the day after the Frontline documentary aired saying that UW wouldn't be able to participate in the documentary. And, yes, I too would have taken on some of these unsavory elements of college football.
K+S: Okay, so before we let you go, tell us: Boca or River?
Sullivan: Boludo! Soy de Boedo che! Club Atletico San Lorenzo de Almagro!
Argentina Futbol Club screens on July 20. 

Purchase tickets by clicking here

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