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11mm Football Film Festival proved the power of the underdog

Stories of enemies coming together through football and filmmakers departing from the beaten path: that was the tale of this year’s 11mm Football Film Festival, which ended in Berlin on Monday.

As always the 11mm concluded with the awarding of the Golden 11 audience-favorite prize and the Shortkicks Gala short-film festival. Collecting the former was "Una Meravigliosa Stagione Fallimentare" (A Wonderful Season of Bankruptcy). Director Mario Bucci's film tells the story of Italian second-division club Bari, which became insolvent in early 2014, but staged an incredible revival, luring fans back to the stadium, finding a new sponsor and almost achieving promotion to Serie A.

The Shortkicks winner - chosen by a jury that included pro football players Marcel Schäfer, Torsten Mattuschka and Marius Gersbeck - was “Im Glanze dieses Glücks” (Joy Shines On). It centers on a protagonist who tapes photocopied images of the 2014 World Cup to lampposts all over in Berlin to remind the residents of the capital of Germany's sporting triumph. The film is a German-Brazilian co-production.

“I wish more people would see the film,” co-director Ricardo Wolff said upon receiving the award. “It's an important message for Germans. They should be more happy.”

A fine sentiment and an example of admirable sportsmanship, considering that Brazil crashed out of the World Cup in a 7-1 semifinal loss to the German national team.

Kings of the New City Film

'Kings of the New City': Football dreams in Afghanistan

A daring American in Afghanistan

One of the most unlikely, yet typical films at the 11mm festival was 'Kings of the New City.' The twenty-minute short feature is the work of Nick Pugliese, an American who at the age of 22 went to work in Kabul, Afghanistan for a telecommunications company. Pugliese soon quit his job to become a professional football player though, and played his home games at the Ghazi stadium, the venue used for public executions in the 1990s.

“The foreigners in Kabul live a very restricted lifestyle because security protocol dictates that they remain in a foreign-only compound,” Pugliese told DW. “I was playing on the company team, and one of my teammates was a former member of the Afghan U19 national team. He saw that I could play. He approached the coach of a pro team and organized a try out. They offered me a contract, and I thought, hey, I'll have way more fun playing soccer.”

Pugliese's translator Mohammad Rafi pointed out that “the Afghans were very surprised to see an American playing football there, leaving a secure situation and taking such a risk", but the film is not about Pugliese. Instead it focuses on Afghans he met playing pickup football in the city, in particular two young men who both dream of becoming goalkeeper for their national team.

One of them is a homeless espandi, someone who ekes out a meager living 'blessing' cars stopped in the street with incense. “If they don't let me play football for ten minutes, my heart will die,” he says at one point in the film.

“These were guys who showed a similar dedication to the game as the professionals I played with but had a more all-consuming obsession with it,” Pugliese explained. “They weren't getting paid. They were coming to the park in their off-time while working really menial jobs. That was really interesting to me.”

Pugliese's fascination with that example of footballing passion led him, with some helpful tips from journalists in Kabul and some crowd funding help from his alma mater Williams College, to turn what had been a blog into a moving portrayal of quixotic dreaming.

Filmstill Istanbul United

A look behind football in Turkey's capital: 'Istanbul United'

Bitter enemies

The power of football can bring people together. That was a leitmotif at the festival, and nowhere was it on more astonishing display than in the feature-length documentary 'Istanbul United.'

The first third of the film explores the explosive, expletive-ridden and occasionally fatal rivalry between supporters of the Turkish city's three main football clubs: Galatasary, Besiktas and Fenerbahce. Ultras don't come any more ultra than this, so it is all the more surprising when the three groups declare an uneasy truce to support the 2013 protests in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

'Istanbul United' is a product of its directors Ferid Eslam and Olli Waldhauer and their willingness to act off the cuff and use social media - techniques also used in 'Kings of the New City'. The genesis of the film came when the two filmmakers saw football hooligans amidst the protestors on TV.

“My co-director and I traveled down to Turkey completely spontaneously and at our own cost,” Eslam told DW. “We shot five days of footage. Crowd funding helped us continue. All of the football stadium scenes you see at the start of the film were shot later.”

The film has no narrative voice, but doesn't need one. The fly-on-the-well scenes of the chaos as Turkish police attack the demonstrators are nerve-wracking, while the rapprochement between rival supporters is all the more impressive considering viewers have previously been introduced to the culture of hatred they normally inhabit. The film leaves it open as to whether the unity displayed by the Istanbul ultras will continue in the future, but the fact remains: for one brief moment, a common sporting and political cause brought together the most bitter of enemies.

As part of the upcoming Kick Off Special on Thursday/Friday, DW-TV will broadcast 'Kings of the New City' in its entirety.

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