When I began work on “In The Game” almost six years ago, I assumed that in terms of funding and distribution it would be like shooting into an open goal. It was a film that was going to look at the impact that Title IX had on the world in terms of leveling the playing field for women in all fields — not just sports — and there seemed to be growing public interest in this issue. Also, I had a proven record as a filmmaker, and I was working with Kartemquin, the makers of “Hoop Dreams” and my previous film “Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita,” which had just aired on PBS Independent Lens and won a Peabody. Most importantly, I had a great story about a dedicated soccer coach who uses the game of soccer to teach his players — mostly second-generation Hispanic high-school girls in southwest Chicago — about how to win in life despite starting from a losing position. But it turns out it was not an open goal; instead we kept getting shown the red card.
I began filming without much funding and I continued filming without any funding. I liked to joke, although it wasn’t all that funny, that everyone with a cell phone and a desk had turned the film down. I wanted to quit a million times, but every time I thought “Ok, this is it,” I would stop and think about the young women I was following and realize that their voices needed and deserved to be heard. Quitting was not an option for them, so it couldn’t be for me.
So with loving support from my colleagues at Kartemquin, I limped along, managing to get just enough funding to keep following the story over many years as these girls finished high school and tried to navigate young adult life, noticeably struggling without a team to support them. I was very fortunate to be able to work with a group of extraordinarily talented people who were very generous. Most of us didn’t get paid much, if anything, to work on the film; sadly, that’s a common story in the documentary world.
Well, the film is now complete, and continuing the soccer metaphors, our distribution strategy is something more like bending a free-kick around the opposition wall. We’re trying to rewrite another common story of the documentary world: that options are limited for documentary films like this one, ones without a celebrity or timely news hook and that take an intimate focus on ordinary people grappling for footing despite immense socioeconomic obstacles. More bluntly, we’ve heard repeatedly that stories about immigrants and female athletes are “a hard sell.”
But maybe that’s finally changing. Arguments for leveling the playing field for women and minorities in front of and behind the camera are growing daily. The largest U.S. television audience for any soccer game — men’s or women’s — just watched the USA women’s team win the World Cup, igniting a conversation about the disparity in attention and opportunities afforded to women in sports.
We’ve never given up believing that there is a community out there waiting for this film. Earlier this year, we screened a rough cut at the Athena Film Festival, where I got great feedback and felt included in a group of people determined to make change in the industry. This week, we will world premiere at the Madrid International Film Festival, and we are premiering a new trailer (which you can watch below). Next, we will hold a Chicago theatrical preview launch run of five screenings at the venerable Gene Siskel Film Center beginning August 22. That will be our US premiere, on the eve of the new school year.
We’ve set up an incredible partnership with the Chicago Public Library and Chicago Public Schools that will lead to the film being seen by kids across the city this fall. We hope to spread this model nationally with groups that are interested in supporting education, female athletes and immigrants. We’d still like to play at festivals in the US and abroad, but our focus will be on taking the film directly to the core audience. It’s far from a traditional release pattern, but we feel this will be the best way to do this story and this community justice.
Since finishing “In The Game,” I have thought a lot about why there was so much opposition to a film about issues of equality facing young women in their quest for a better life. I don’t have the answer. Or at least, the answer I might have is not one I want to accept. Does the world really care that little about equality for girls and women, and even less so for women who are not rich and not white? In our country who gets to play and who does not is a yardstick by which we measure how close we are to achieving the goals of a democracy — a level playing field for all, or in a word: equality. I made this film, stuck with it through the good times and the bad, because I believe deeply in the endless possibilities that come with the word “inclusion.”
Maria Finitzo is a two-time Peabody award winning social-issue documentary filmmaker. She has been producing and directing documentary films for network television, public broadcasting, cable TV and the Internet for more than 25 years. Her body of work has been honored by every major broadcast award granted to documentary films. Finitzo’s films demonstrate a depth and breadth of knowledge and expertise, tackling a wide variety of subjects including the controversial science of stem cell research, the command and control of nuclear weapons on an international level and the complex psychology of adolescent girls.