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Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #75: Tony Vainuku Shows Journey of Polynesian High School Footballers With ‘In Football We Trust’

Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #75: Tony Vainuku Shows Journey of Polynesian High School Footballers With 'In Football We Trust'

Despite having only a small population with a short history in the U.S., Samoans and Tongans are 28 times more likely than any other minority group to play football for the NFL. Over four years, filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn followed the journey of four accomplished Polynesian high school football players, struggling toward achieving their lifelong, and probably life-changing, goal of professional recruitment.
Impassioned, hard-working, and determined, the players’ love for their families is equalled only by their love of this great American sport. Their evolution from childhood to adulthood in the competitive world of collegiate football is captured with incredible detail, revealing some of the severe pressures to succeed stemming from within the tightly knit Polynesian community.
The constant threat of gang violence, addiction, and poverty could stand between these boys and their dreams. Even with loving mothers, siblings, and friends supporting them every step of the way, not everyone will make it to the big time.

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST is a moving story about 4 young Polynesian NFL hopefuls using football as a way out of poverty & gang violence.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST is an American story about culture and youth; the highs and lows of high school; race and privilege; and the insanely competitive world that young athletes are finding themselves entrenched in. We were given unprecedented access to shoot over a four-year time period with four incredible young men, who are being heard for the first time, not only by their parents, but for those outside the Polynesian community as well. Often viewed as the “salvation” for their families, these young players reveal the culture clash they experience as they transform out of their adolescence and into the high stakes world of collegiate recruiting and rigors of societal expectations. Finally, we capture the story behind the headlines, amid the rise of the Pacific Islander presence in the NFL, through an every day portrait of our subjects’ lives, ultimately opening a window into a culture that is relatively unknown.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn are both from Salt Lake City, where their first film project together, IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST, takes place. Tony began his career as a creative multi-media director and now, in addition to filmmaking, owns Soulpro, a lifestyle apparel brand. Erika is a DGA award winning filmmaker with a diverse background in the arts and passion for documentary photography. Their executive producer, Geralyn Dreyfous, introduced the two filmmakers at the start of Utah’s competitive high school football season, and they decided to partner on a film that would tell a new-immigrant story from the communities they grew up in.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

We shot cinema verité for three years on a shoe-string budget prior to obtaining funding. However, the biggest challenge was whittling down 600 hours of footage and incorporating 4 different storylines into a 90-minute film. Yet, after 18 months of post-production and with a skilled edit team, we got there!

What do you want Sundance audience to take away from your film?

Our subjects were vulnerable during the most challenging times of their lives. Their trials and tribulations changed us as filmmakers and inspired us to continue providing a platform for stories like theirs. We hope that youth who see the film will learn from our subjects’ experiences and that parents will better understand the pressure that their teenage kids are up against. In addition, the film aspires to create awareness about new-immigrant communities, Polynesian heritage, and to encourage viewers to confront their own expectations of the ‘American dream.’

Any films inspire you?

So many films have inspired us, from the classics to the films made by our peers and colleagues, with whom we exchanged cuts for feedback. RESTREPO and AMERICAN HISTORY X were films we both frequently discussed during the filmmaking process. Some of Tony’s other favorite films include ALPHA DOGG, SHAWSHANK REDEEMPTION, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, LORD OF WAR and MOULIN ROUGE. Erika loves being absorbed in character-driven, cinema verité films.

What’s next?

We are designing the IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST outreach campaign, ensuring that the film reaches a wide national and international audience, specifically in new-immigrant communities and for underprivileged youth. In addition, we both have several other projects in development including a feature narrative.

What cameras did you shoot on?

We primarily shot on the Panasonic HPX. However, about 20% of the film was shot on Canon DSLRs. In addition, our subjects were given flip cams to document their lives when we weren’t there.

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform.

Yes. Actually, we are in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for our outreach campaign: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/815346089/in-football-we-trust-a-sundance-documentary-premie Our goal is to have IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST be seen by everyone – from these marginalized and under served communities to youth and families across the nation so that they might be able to learn from our subjects’ experiences.


Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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