CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA (APRIL, 2009)***–It all starts with a ball. Tossed onto a pitch—newly demarcated with white lines made of sand—black and white boys scramble to get the plastic and rope construction that is doubling for a soccer ball. It’s blazingly hot on this bit of scorched earth in the Retreat neighbourhood of Cape Town—thirty-four degrees in the shade –but the 15 and 16 year-old boys don’t seem to notice. They cheer and scream while scrambling for the ball—the rain-parched earth and white sand are kicked up, a dusty haze settling on the scene. One of the buildings has a spray painted mural of animals—“Come and Play” it reads—but juxtaposed underneath is a festering junkyard of broken glass beer bottles, wayward plastic bags and rusting corrugated roofing. But kids are kids—any space to play with a ball is good enough for a game of pick-up football or soccer as it is called here—and so loose directions are hollered in English and Afrikaans. Other children and parents watch from the sidelines, enthralled in this “pick up” game between two communities that under normal conditions would never meet together—let along play sport—due to social, economic and geographical realities in modern day South Africa. But they are all here—all concentrated between white lines focused on this make-shift ball. Sure it’s contrived and idealized, a literal example of what International Inspiration hopes to be all about— getting kids, whether in the midst of the pitch or shouting orders from the sidelines, enthused about sport. The parents are intrigued, the coaches are helping out and communities are coming together. Taking dead space and transforming it into a safe, fun place.
The making of this fundraising film for International Inspiration has been months in the making—the presentation of pitches, the decision of whose creative take was able to best represent what II is all about. Krow eventually won the bid and along with Infinity—the production company charged with organizing the direction, filming and coordinating of the shoot—the meetings between UNICEF, British Council, UK Sport, Krow and Infinity began in earnest. Everything needed to be ironed out—was the original concept of a man pushing a white line machine deemed to have Colonial undertones (in the end, yes), how would we get the permissions sorted for all the children that we wanted to film, what about permits for filming in townships and near schools, how could the film seem to have (as Nick Hastings from Krow called it) “controlled spontaneity” yet also an element of fluidity? When I arrived on 17 March, exhausted from having travelled from vacation in Colombia to Cape Town via Argentina, I was taken directly to the first “set” of the day—the crew had been filming all weekend in other locales including a small rural village an hour from Cape Town and in a township. The crew were filming a few Indian children (some in saris, some in Western dress) running down a disused train track to load the white line machine onto an old train. In between takes, the children were asked if they needed any water (their guardians were also in the shoot) and after about eight takes, the assistant director told them, “That’s a wrap.” We then zoomed onto another location to film the long jump, with the skyline of Cape Town in the background.
The next morning we headed to Retreat—our caravan including two vans full of crew, a truck carrying port-a-johns, another truck with equipment, yet another truck with food, drink and a canopy to cover us from the strong sun. This section of Cape Town is a step up from a township—the homes are constructed from cement— but the community is on the cusp of poverty and all that that entails. “This area is crime ridden,” says Isaak Davids, the CEO of the Retreat Soccer Club. “We are infested with drugs so we want to give kids an alternative.” Davids estimates that 80 percent of the children who play in his soccer league come from homes where parents drinks or are on drugs. “We are not social workers but we let kids know they can speak to us.” The board of the soccer club pay about 1500 rand a year to keep the club going and to cover the entrance fees for tournaments against the six other clubs in the area. On Saturdays before matches, all the children are given a bowl of soup and bread to keep hunger at bay—and for many children this is the only hot meal they will get all weekend. Soccer is huge here especially because Benni McCarthy, who plays for the Blackburn Rangers, grew up playing on these pitches and is a real hero for these kids. Many of the kids I talked to have hopes of playing on the great pitches of Europe some day. “It’s my dream to play for Manchester United,” says Brendan, 14, with huge diamond studs in his pierced ears. He and his friend Dylan, also 14, say their favourite player is Cristiano Ronaldo. “Every week I run across this pitch,” Dylan says, surveying the dry dusty landscape that surrounds us. “I want to score lots of goals today and every week so that one day I can play for South Africa.”
As we wait for the white children to arrive from Camps Bay, a more privileged part of town, director Alex Turner and his director of photography, Luke Scott, decide to film close-ups of the white line machine, steadily moving the wheels of the machine. “Maybe we can put a camera on the ground and we can walk it through the shot,” Turner says, trying to get the exact image that will fit into the film. Kirsten Bowman, one of the founders of Big Picture, the South African production company that has been so elemental on this shoot, sits under the canopy to talk about how the filming has been going. “We were really surprised how well things went in Khayelitsha,” she says, referring to one of the biggest townships in Cape Town. Bowman gives praise to Zorro, a local who also happens to be an opera singer who starred in “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha,” which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005. He is considered an influential member of the community and Bowman credits him with getting the community behind the filming. “In the townships drink is a huge problem and filming in these areas can attract a bad element,” Bowman says. “But with a mixture of luck and Zorro’s command within the community, we kept those elements out.” She describes how the children and parents all got excited about the races—they had painted a running track—and there was even spontaneous singing and dancing from locals. “That rawness of filming on that day was amazing,” says Michael Macmillan, Krow’s head of television.
With the kids from Camps Bay finally here, the match begins. The ball flies up, the boys scamper and the next two hours there is pure jubilation among the children, the parents and the filmmakers. Goals are scored, there is camaraderie in the ranks and when we wrap it up everyone leaves beaming. “Coming here has really changed my perspective, you see places like this on television and think that there will be no talent but they were great and it has really changed my view,” enthuses Harry, a 17 year-old white boy from the Camps Bay contingent. As Harry walks off with an apple in hand he turns back to me and says, “I think schools and teams should really welcome these kinds of things more because that was so much fun!”
The next day, the spirit of play is the same but in a totally different setting—this time we are in rural Kalbaskraal at the O.J. Erasmus primary school. As we arrive, children in one of the seven classrooms are singing a song in Afrikaans—it sounds like a joyful ditty except its premise is teaching children that their bodies are private—part of the AIDS education that children get in this country where 5.5 million are thought to be living with the virus. On this last day of shooting, we are getting kids to participate in the shot put and showing inclusion in sport between girls and boys. It’s another scorcher, and water and fruit are wheeled out for the children to have during film breaks. Teachers, the principal and other students periodically come out to see what all the commotion is about. As with all the other days, these kids—once shown how to play a particular sport—seem to be naturals. The boys and girls cheer each other on and even when the cameras are turned off and being moved to another location in the schoolyard, the kids keep playing. “This has been a really refreshing project for me because I usually do not have any interaction with kids,” says Liam Gibson, a copywriter with Krow. It is Gibson and his art director colleague Jon Gledstone who came up with the brief about the white lines. “We started thinking about what were symbols of sport that would help express the message of International Inspiration. Sure sport is about guts and determination but what is universal in almost any sport are playing lines.” And now Gibson and Gledstone’s idea was coming to fruition right in front of them. “This has been an amazing trip and something completely different from what I usually do, which is to try and sell things off a shelf,” says Gledstone, referring to his job working in television advertising. As we head off to do one last scene—a moped driving down a tree-lined street with the white line machine strapped to the back—the kids are still messing about on the shot put pitch. The Easter holiday starts the next day and yet the kids are still hanging around in the schoolyard. It is utterly inspiring what a simple ball—or rock or white-lined race track—can do for a kid.
***I wrote this piece when I came back from South Africa in April 2009. I was working on a project entitled “International Inspiration” (with UNICEF, UK SPORT, LOCOG, etc) and they are reflections from filming. Though “II” –as it was called– was supposed to be heavily promoted during the London 2012 Olympics, it seemed to drop completely from view. All that effort and it seems to be a footnote that few people know about–a plan to bring sport to millions of kids across the globe. It was an inspired idea, bogged down in bureaucracy.