There are very few countries in which soccer is so closely intertwined with a national identity than in Argentina. A recent poll indicates that 90% of Argentines declares an allegiance to an Argentine football club including teams like Boca Juniors, River Plate and San Lorenzo. It’s the kind of country where in which the entire populace can be arrested by a single soccer match and soccer icons are elevated to the status of deities. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano illustrated the passion in his book Soccer In Sun and Shadow:
The gigantic Carrefour supermarket chain in Buenos Aires built a store on the ruins of San Lorenzo’s stadium. When the stadium was demolished in the middle of 1983, weeping fans carried off fistfuls of dirt in their pockets.
And yet like in so many other soccer-obsessed countries, women are exempt from this valued culture. Aspiring female soccer players struggle to even find space to play, nevermind an organized team.
The lack of support from the Argentina FA has severely hampered the development of the Argentina Women’s National Team. Despite winning the Sudamericano Feminino in 2006, Argentina’s 11-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany in the opening match of the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup prompted FIFA President Sepp Blatter to say such a non-compeititive affair was “not good for the game”.
There are, however, a group of young girls who are undettered by the apathy and resistance. They’re not who you would expect. There is a group of girls that hail from the notorious Villa 31 shantytown in Buenos Aires who aim to reverse cultural boundaries and stereotypes by playing soccer. Their own mothers think they’re destined to become either maids, teenage mothers or criminals. They’re determined to prove them wrong.
Filmmakers Ginger Gentile and Gabriel Balanovsky began following the girls’ journey in 2008 and decided to produce a documentary film, which they hope to release around the time of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup net summer. The documentary is currently in production and the filmmakers hope to accrue enough support and funding to both continue to finance a video workshop the filmmakers have established fo the girls and to finish the film.
Co-director Ginger Gentile was kind enough to answer some questions about the documentary. Below you will find the documentary’s trailer, our interview and ways you can help support the project.
AWK: You’re from New York City and your husband [fellow filmmaker Gabriel Balanovsky] is from Argentina but admits to having little interest in soccer. How did you first meet these girls and what spurred you to want to make a documentary about them?
GG: Both Gabriel and I are unlikely candidates for filming a documentary about soccer. However, we are both passionate about challenging gender stereotypes, especially those that classify women as naturally more docile or weaker. We found in the story of the girls of Villa 31 the perfect example of women trying to play a sport that is only closed to them because of cultural stereotypes.
We first found a story about these girls in a newspaper in 2008 and we were looking for a new project at the time. We actually visited a few projects and this one grabbed us because there was a clear conflict: the girls need to fight for the physical space to play a sport they love, as well as the “social space”: the money and support to keep their dreams alive.
AWK: The documentary has been in production since 2008 and is slated for a 2011 release to coincide with the Women’s World Cup. What was the thought process behind following your subjects for several years rather than say, a few months?
GG: The girls from Villa 31 soccer team are used to publicity. Not a month goes by without a newspaper, magazine, or television show doing some story on them. However, most of these stories focus their narrative on the negative aspects of the girl’s lives. The girls have repeatedly commented, “We’re tired of people using us.” Working with them for two years has given us the opportunity to evoke a completely different response from them. They have seen that our project is much more than just a story; it is an opportunity for us to capture how they grow and face challenges. We have also developed long lasting bonds with them and even started a video workshop so they can participate in the documentary.
AWK: What kind of resistance were you met with from the girls’ parents and particularly their mothers?
GG: Through interviews of the girls and other female soccer players, we have found more resistance coming from the mothers of the family, rather than fathers. Mothers would prefer their girls to marry and do housework, rather than to see them play soccer. While fathers laugh and tell their daughters that they are acting like boys, mothers come up with excuses, such as that they will get hurt, to not let them play. The real challenge comes from facing the mother.
The main resistance is that they make excuses for their daughters not to play or make practice dependent on doing housework, while their brothers can play whenever they want. We have also never seen one parent at a game or practice!
AWK: The documentary is unique because it’s not simply the filmmakers who are telling the story. The girls also attended workshops where they could learn videography skills and their footage would be included in the documentary. In a sense, giving cameras to the girls is very empowering as it lets them be in control of their own stories. As filmmakers, was this always part of the plan?
GG: The response from both the girls and the parents to the short film was the impetus for our decision to get the girls involved in the documentary. Thus, we decided to start a video workshop, where they can learn basic camera and sound recording skills, and how to tell a story with images. We seek for them to become the “experts”, giving them the opportunity to personally interview their peers and the people who place obstacles in their path. The workshop, which has already begun, has evolved into much more than just film skills. We have taken to the movies, which was the first time for many of the girls. We have exposed them to other films, one of which was filmed in another Buenos Aires’ shantytown. The goal for the workshop is to provide them with another commercial skill that will help them build a more successful future. We hope that some of them will take this opportunity to go on to work in the film and TV industry.
AWK: Are any women’s soccer matches broadcast in Argentina and do these girls have female any footballers they look up to?
GG: Just this year they started broadcasting international champion matches with Argentine women’s teams. Still, they are not very popular, and only a few girls have seen a female match on TV. They do look up to one player, “La Zurda” but would be unable to name female players from other countries.
AWK: What’s the biggest challenge facing women in Argentina who want to play soccer even recreationally, never mind professionally?
GG: Soccer is the national obsession in Argentina; it produces some of the world’s best soccer players. However, female soccer is not even on the radar. “Professional” female players actually have to buy their own uniforms and don’t earn a salary. For women who just wish to play recreationally, they have to fight for the space to play. Like our girls, they have to compete with the boys for the use of the field. There are basically no female soccer clubs. Those that do accept women, concentrate their resources on the male’s teams. Additionally, females have to struggle with playing with girls and women of very different ages, which adds a challenging dynamic to the game. Regardless of the age, women who play soccer in Argentina are not taken seriously by their male counterparts.
AWK: Talk a bit about coach and women’s soccer pioneer Monica Santino. Did she take on a matriarchal role for the girls?
GG: Monica Santino is one of the pioneers of women’s soccer in Argentina. She is also an important feminist activist. She currently works in a woman’s center and coaches two other teams, one of which is located in another shantytown. She has been coaching the girls from Villa 31, since 2008, when she took over for Alison Lasser, a U.S. exchange student who started the program.
I wouldn’t call her matriarchal, but she looks out for the girls and helps them solve problems off the field.
AWK: Brazil and Argentina have a certain kinship, both culturally and geographically. They are also historical rivals in men’s soccer. Brazil is now one of the major powers in the international women’s game. Yet progress of women’s soccer in Argentina is seemingly stalled. What do you think this is down to and what is it going to take to break the taboo?
GG: Ironically, I think that first women will have to win international championships like the field hockey team (ranked number one in the world) for people to pay attention. To do that, the athletic training of women players has to improve. While they have great ball handling skills, they often are unable to run fast, which means they rarely win international matches.
Also, parents have to let go of their fears that girls will get hurt playing soccer—they sometimes get injured, as do boys, but no one has died or ended up in hospital yet!
AWK: The Homeless World Cup was recently held in Rio. Did any of the girls you’ve profiled participate in it?
GG: Yes, this year we had three of the girls travel to Rio to play. For one of the girls, Laura, 18, this was the second time playing in the event. She participated in the 2009 Homeless World Cup which took place in Milan, Italy.
AWK: What’s been the most uplifting moment you’ve witnessed from these girls during production and will you keep in touch with them after production of the documentary ends?
GG: Seeing the girls grow-up and improve on the field, because getting better means that they learn to work as a team: they pass the ball more, have strategy and don’t get angry at each other. Playing as a team also helps them improve as individuals. Also, when we showed them and their families the short film we produced using what we had been filming since 2008, (you can see it at http://www.goalsforgirlsthemovie.org), they saw their reality reflected on the screen, and we witnessed a remarkable response. One family started making the boys, not just the sole daughter, clean the house and another girl who was considering quitting because of squabbles with teammates began to show up to practice regularly again. The reactions of Argentine audiences have been especially rewarding, considering that female soccer is practically non-existent here.
We plan on continuing the video workshop and also Coach Monica is fighting to found the first women’s soccer club in Argentina (right now, all women’s teams are subsidiaries of men’s teams, and are underfunded). She wants the club to have a cultural element, and we want to offer the video workshop to all future players in the club.
11.) What is the long-term vision for the documentary and how can people get involved?
The long-term vision for the documentary is to influence girls around the world to play soccer and fight for their dream. Right now we are looking for donations and corporate sponsors for Goals for Girls. While we have won a grant from the Argentine government, we need funds to continue the video workshop and finish the movie. Readers can go to http://www.goalsforgirlsthemovie.org to learn more and to donate. Donations are tax deductible in the US. They can also support us by becoming our fan on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/goalsforgirlsthemovie . People can also link to us and blog about the movie. And, it they are interested in raising money in a fun way, we can send them a screening kit so that they can show the short film in their home, venue or institution and then pass the hat.
On our Facebook page we also love when people tell us why playing sports is important for them as women.
Thanks again to Ginger and please don’t hesitate to follow the given links above to help spread the awareness about the project.