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Social Justice, With Soccer

A Chilean filmmaker explores the Middle East conflict through the eyes of Palestinian footballers.

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Growing up under military dictatorship in Chile—which, you might be surprised to learn, is home to some half a million Palestinians—Marcelo Piña always felt he understood the Palestinian plight. So when the Palestinian soccer team began courting Chilean players to improve its chances of competing in the 2006 World Cup, he saw it as an opportunity to humanize their cause. "People have become numb to the conflict," Piña says. "They hear about it all the time, but they don't know the chronology or what it's about. Football is a language that a lot of people understand."

Free Kick, Piña's first documentary, gets its U.S. premiere Saturday at the 24th annual Chicago Latino Film Festival. Shot over nearly three years, it focuses on five players on the Palestinian national team—from Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, the Askar refugee camp, and Santiago, Chile—and the daily indignities and personal tragedies they endure in the occupied territories. "The people there are striving to have a normal life," Piña says. "They want to go to work and play football and go to university.... With this documentary, I thought we could put the face of a regular person—an athlete trying to play football to represent his country—going through all these ordeals just to kick a ball around."

The team's journey began in 1998 when FIFA, the World Cup's governing body, granted the Palestinian team accreditation for the first time since 1940—effectively recognizing Palestine as an independent state. Nicola Hadwa, a second-division Chilean coach born in Beit Jala, was hired to manage the team in 2002. Because the region had no professional league to encourage new talent and Israeli forces imposed tight restrictions on movement in the area, Hadwa sought players from across the Palestinian diaspora, particularly in South America. The campaign brought in the likes of Roberto Bishara, a star defender from Santiago, and greatly improved the team's chances of representing Palestine in the World Cup.

Piña began documenting the team's progress in 2003. During an extended spring break from UIC, where he was pursuing a doctorate, he traveled to Santiago, where Hadwa was training with a group of Palestinian-Chilean players. In early 2004—by which time Austrian Alfred Riedl had replaced Hadwa—Piña quit school as well as his teaching job at a local nonprofit and traveled with a cameraman and translator to the team's training camp in Ismailia, Egypt. From there he accompanied the team to World Cup qualifying matches in Doha, Qatar, where all home games are held, and then back to the players' actual homes, where he documented their daily struggles: One player's younger brother was shot in the leg during a protest. Another player was deemed a security risk and his house is demolished. The players were routinely searched in their own neighborhoods. They waited hours or days to cross Israeli checkpoints to attend practices, "home" games, and matches abroad. Sometimes they weren't allowed out of the country and the team was forced to play shorthanded. (In the end, they failed to qualify for World Cup competition.)

Piña says the first time he crossed the heavily guarded checkpoint at Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel he immediately thought of his experience growing up in Chile. Piña was two years old in 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Chile's democratically elected socialist government in a coup backed by the Nixon administration. The dictator's 17-year reign was marked by poverty, repression, and the disappearances of the regime's enemies.

Piña's family was middle-class—his father was a salesman for a big construction firm—but they lived in a working-class Santiago neighborhood where youth clashed with police. "Some kids in my neighborhood set up a barricade in one of the first uprisings against the dictatorship," Piña says. "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?'" As a teenager he became politically active, joining the growing demonstrations against the regime, which finally fell in 1990.

The following year Piña, then 20, traveled to the U.S. with a group of friends: "We were long-haired, wild hippies without a destination." He spent ten months in Miami, then headed for Minneapolis, stopping in Chicago along the way. He wound up enrolling at National-Louis University, where his aunt worked, and then transferring to Columbia College, where he graduated with a film degree in 1997.

In 1998 Piña took a job teaching video skills to teens at the nonprofit Community TV Network, where he also organized a summer program that brought Jewish and Palestinian American kids together to explore solutions to the Middle East conflict. In 2002 he enrolled at UIC to pursue a PhD in social and cultural anthropology; he put that on hold indefinitely when he left to film in Egypt in 2004.

Piña shot through the end of 2005 in 11 countries on four continents, returning to Chicago between trips. He funded his work with contributions from Palestinian businessmen abroad, fund-raisers, savings, and plenty of loans. (Altogether Piña estimates he spent about $350,000 to make the movie.)

Because he couldn't find an affordable Arabic-speaking editor here, he relocated to Cairo in February 2006 to shape his 300 hours of footage into a finished film. He spent nearly two years in editing, paying the bills as a freelance postproduction supervisor for Critical Moments, the Arabic-language version of ER, and doing video work for Spanish installation artist Soledad Sevilla.

Free Kick premiered in November at the Latin American Film Festival in Trieste, Italy, where it screened out of competition but was awarded a special prize for audience favorite. The Chicago Latino Film Festival will be the film's second screening, but Piña won't be here for it. He's in Spain with Sevilla documenting her participation in the Granada Exhibition.

After that he'll return to Cairo to shoot the pilot for a six-part documentary series about rural people who've migrated to the world's megacities and the jobs they've improvised for themselves on the margins of the economy. "You follow a guy going on a bicycle with this huge tray of bread on his head to sell at the bus stop," he explains. "Then you meet a woman who welds water pipes, and that takes you to guys separating cardboard. You go around the clock for 24 hours." He plans to shoot successive segments in Mumbai, Mexico City, Shanghai, Rio, and Lagos.

"If I can contribute to telling stories that haven't been told about people struggling with poverty and political turmoil, bringing light to misconceptions about them, that's what I want to do," Piña says. "That's what I did with this movie, and that's what I'll do with the future ones that come."v

For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.

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