Directors – Mike Brett, Steve Jamison – 2014 – UK – Cert. 15 – 97m
DVD review for Third Way, 2014.
In 2001, American Samoa suffered the worst ever defeat for a soccer team in a World Cup qualifier when they lost to Australia by a staggering 31 goals to nil. Ten years later, FIFA still ranked the side at the bottom of its league table. Where most football teams dream of winning, American Samoa dreamed of not conceding a goal. Sensing herein the seed of a subject for a documentary film, Brit filmmakers Mike Brett & Steve Jamison headed for the tiny, English-speaking, Pacific island and spent months there hanging out with and filming the team in the training run up to the 2014 World Cup. What they captured on camera and edited into a feature film is both remarkable and compelling, whether or not you’re interested in football.
Rather than the expected group of losers, they find the team are steeped in the culture of American Samoa which is all about community, family and (Christian) religion, a very different cultural underpinning to Brett and Jamison’s. Western capitalism – and football within it – is all about competing, pushing yourself and your team as far as you / they can go and, ultimately, winning. And the devil take the hindmost. The West has little time for losers.
It turns out that American Samoan goalie Nicky Salapu, who conceded the infamous 31 goals, is still held in high regard by the team. There are other surprises too, like defender Jaiyah Saelua being a fa’afafine – the Samoan third gender who although born as men live 24/7 as women and are completely accepted as such within Samoan (and thus American Samoan) society.
In terms of winning their matches, American Samoa’s record may be less than enviable, but the team’s sense of community, family and giving thanks to the Almighty for whatever has recently happened (good or bad) makes them highly attractive on a human level.
To help the side qualify for Brazil 2014, the national football association hires Dutch coach Thomas Rongen to lick them into shape. Rongen, embodying competitive, winner-takes-all football, is thrown up against the very different American Samoan culture. He must find a way of building the team without betraying their values yet helping them to play to win rather than merely to not lose. The process will prove just as challenging for him as it will for them.
Rongen is not in the picture when the filmmakers first start filming the team; when he arrives, they wonder if their project will fall apart but, as it turns out, he quickly becomes the catalyst who brings the whole thing together.
While this genuinely inspiring documentary is well worth seeing on the big screen should you get the chance, on DVD it comes with a number of worthwhile extras. A deleted scene shows a rousing speech about how Tonga invaded American Samoa in the past then was kicked out, so playing Tonga at football is a chance to defeat the island’s old rivals in a different context. Also included is a very good filmed Q&A session with Brett & Jamison conducted for American Samoan radio.
Best of all is the two directors’ commentary track, which sheds fascinating light on the film making process and the islanders’ culture. Here, for instance, are observations about how when coach Rongen first arrives, much of their filming is from a greater distance than before as our duo grapple with the issue of whether it is in fact respectful to keep filming.