This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the 2010 SXSW Film Festival. "Pelada" is now available on cable VOD, courtesy of FilmBuff.
Made with three other directors, Ryan White's "Pelada" was a truly collaborative project that took him to some of the most far-flung corners of the world. "Away from the bright lights and manicured fields, there's another side of soccer. From prisoners in Bolivia to moonshine brewers in Kenya, from freestylers in China to women who play in hijab in Iran, 'Pelada' is the story of the people who play." [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
Ryan White on his background and SXSW project, "Pelada"...
I was that movie nerd growing up who would help the adults win office Oscar pools. And I was even more of an outlier in that I cared about the documentary categories too. I went on to study documentary filmmaking at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and after that worked under Sherry Jones (television doc producer) for many years learning the ropes of all aspects to filmmaking, until I felt confident enough to dive into my first feature.
This movie has four directors–it was a really collaborative project. We studied filmmaking at Duke together, and Gwendolyn and Rebekah played soccer together at Duke too. I hadn’t seen Gwendolyn or Rebekah in many years when they got in touch and said, “Hey we have this idea for our movie… would you want to join us?” We were young and naïve and ambitious enough to think we could pull off a movie traveling to 25 countries, so we said, “Let’s do it.” And then we realized each of us was poor individually…so that’s when the real work began.
We were crossing lots of borders and traversing lots of neighborhoods that weren’t the safest, so we tried to look as inconspicuous as possible–we put our equipment in backpacks and it was guerilla-style filmmaking. Because of the spontaneous nature of pick-up, we literally followed the game where it took us. There was no amount of planning or development we could do in advance to ever know when a truly remarkable story would arise.
And we kept our crew small – two soccer players, two behind the camera. Part of the allure of our movie I think is the intimacy and access we get to these people living in different pockets of the world. You can’t bribe your way into a prison or find hidden courts in Tehran with a big lighting kit and a sound guy, so it would have resulted in a different movie.
We were traveling to 25 countries on a dangerously low budget, so there was no extra money for frills. We couldn’t afford fixers or guides, we couldn’t afford hotels or the easy modes of transportation. So we were often relying on the favors of others, people all over the world who housed us, fed us, and guided us to find these stories.
And we inevitably found ourselves in sticky situations at times – we got detained in Israel, reported to the Iranian government, and countless other situations our mothers wouldn’t want to know about. I think it speaks to the magic of the game and our movie’s subject: almost every time, once we explained what we were doing, we were met with smiles and excitement and sentences like, “Ahhhh, I should show you this really cool court near where I live!”
I think it’s an entertaining, and hopefully crowd-pleasing film. Soccer players can obviously relate to the movie – they all know the feeling of having once been a dreamer, but at some point that dream never materialized – and so you move on with your life and the game takes a new role. But soccer is really used as the vehicle, the lens in our movie to tell very unique human stories that anyone can relate to.
White on his influences...
"The Endless Summer." It’s part of the documentary canon, especially for sports docs, and we knew that we were in some ways making a soccer player’s take on that classic. We took inspiration from the young, care-free attitude of that film – to just pick up and go on an adventure and use a passion to see the world. But we also knew we wanted to use the sport to go a little deeper – to really delve into the lives of people we met along the way. The way "The Endless Summer" really couldn’t do because of technical limitations at the time it was made – we wanted to allow the people we met along the way to tell their own stories, in their own words.
...and future projects...
I’m working on a behind-the-scenes documentary about the federal gay marriage lawsuit in California. And working on a couple screenplays that I’d love to sell so I can continue making docs!