Changing The Game

Who: Shilpi Gupta is a filmmaker, television producer and educator based in New York City. Her debut film was the 2004 documentary When The Storm Came, about a mass rape in the Kashmir region of Northern India, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Gupta’s latest film project is a youth soccer documentary, Changing The Game. It follows three sets of teenage athletes living in America, South Africa, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and how the game of soccer has helped with their personal empowerment — as well as their local community’s struggles with gang violence, HIV/AIDS prevention and cross-cultural conflict. Gupta began what has now become a 5-year-long production, following a stint teaching documentary filmmaking through the Sundance Institute in Salt Lake City, and to Bronx teenagers in New York City. She intends to use the film as a way to inspire children in different parts of the world to “change the game in their own lives.” Camera In The Sun spoke with Gupta for a June 2014 interview about both her first and latest documentaries, the power of soccer to affect both personal and cultural change, and what the game means to her.

Why did you decide to make Changing The Game?

My cousin was working with an organization called Grassroots Soccer. She went to Dartmouth, and they’re based in Dartmouth. She was telling me about this program that uses soccer to teach HIV/AIDS prevention in South Africa, and I was just really intrigued right away. I worked with kids in the Bronx, and taught through the Sundance Institute in Salt Lake City as well. But for two years, I was working in the Bronx running a joint video music program. And you could see that once kids were allowed to do something that they loved, it was such a good way of getting them to really think critically about their community. Because they would start with all these lyrics, trying to be like 50 Cent or something, but we made a rule: no gratuitous violence. You can talk about violence in your community, but you’re not allowed to glorify violence. It led to all these discussions, and you could really see them thinking about their community and things that they didn’t really pick apart otherwise. Because in truth, if someone comes and says, “OK, now we’re going to talk about what’s wrong in your community,” nobody wants to do that. But if they’re doing it through the lens of something that they love… I thought of soccer being used in that way to talk about HIV/AIDS prevention. And instantly, I could visualize it. And it made sense – I could see it working. And you throw in soccer… I can see the film.

What is the significance of the film’s title?

These kids are all changing the game of their life. Through a game, through sports, through play. This film is considered a soft social film and so it’s a little more difficult to “sell” in some way. On the other hand, my first film … it was a village that was raped, and you’re talking to rape victims in a relatively unknown conflict zone. It more easily fills a documentary niche. This film is harder to put out there in some ways. I thought it would be easier because it has this really exciting narrative, and these really compelling global issues. But it’s harder because it’s not direct victims, necessarily. The kid didn’t die in the conflict. His brother didn’t die in the conflict. The kid’s mom is not necessarily suffering from AIDS. But the way I look at it, each of these kids with even a slightly different choice would have been a victim to these seemingly impenetrable problems in their communities. Mustapha from Philadelphia, statistically, should be en route to jail right now, or dead. Statistically, he shouldn’t be successful. He shouldn’t be going to college, which he is. He shouldn’t have a job, which he does. And statistically, 60-70% of the community that the South African team is from has HIV/AIDS. Their township has the highest rate in the world. 60% of the women are believed to have HIV or AIDS. So the two girls, they didn’t just join soccer programs. They joined WhizzKids United, a soccer program that teaches them how to prevent [infection]. It’s a choice. Similarly, with the Israeli and Palestinian kids, everyone in their communities hate each other. There’s no reason for them to play together. You can even see sometimes, they themselves are torn. They’re the easiest story, because you see the difference immediately. Because before it, they say, “No, we’re not gonna be best friends. But now we’ll be less likely to kill each other when we go to war.” And then after it, you can’t see who’s Palestinian and who’s Israeli. They’re like best friends. They’re brothers and sisters. So they’ve all made this choice to not be the statistic, and to not be what would make the story a non-soft social issue. But to me, that’s more powerful, and that’s more empowering. Why do documentaries always have to be about the victims, and the people who fell to the problem? Why can’t they be the people who rose above them, and chose not to be the statistic?

So they’re using soccer to combat an issue in their community. It’s drug violence. It’s gang violence. It’s HIV/AIDS. It’s post-conflict resolutions. They all are tackling different issues. But they’re all using soccer. So, why soccer? Is there something special about the sport? Some people say, “No, it’s any sport.” Which I think to some extent is true. UNICEF has done a big study on how sport in general has a way of empowering children in a way that almost nothing else does. It’s physically active. It’s physically engaging. It builds confidence. If you see the good side of it, and you don’t do the crazy-competitive bullying trash-talking side of it, then it builds confidence. I wasn’t a soccer player, but if you watch the sport, it’s the most “team” sport. In basketball, you can have one player dominate. And in American football, two players dominate. Somebody’s got to catch the ball that the quarterback throws. But he is directing most of it. In soccer, you may have this giant superstar, but they would be nothing without their team. Messi would not be Messi without Barca, and Ronaldo wouldn’t be Ronaldo without Madrid.

Another reason why I think soccer is a good tool for youth empowerment, more so than other sports: you don’t need anything but a ball. Every single continent has a game with a ball. So if you have a sport where all you need is a ball and your foot, it’s really democratizing. In South Africa they were talking about making their own balls all the time. And then when I was shooting, I had the kids actually do it for me. They wrapped plastic bags and rubber bands together to make a ball. And then my American kid — she’s Colombian-American — without me instigating it, her father starts telling me a story in Spanish about when they used to do the same thing in Colombia. And the woman in Israel was talking to me about the Palestinian kids who do something similar to make their own balls. It’s amazing – it really is everywhere. I went to South Africa to scout for pre-production, and I was filming kids everywhere playing soccer with whatever they could. And it’s all street soccer. They would see a garbage can and a door — boom, that’s your field. They would stand a little brick up on the ground, then took a coke bottle, and they were kicking it around like it was a soccer ball into the brick. That’s how you scored a goal. So they’ll use anything. Whatever they can get their hands on. Throw a soccer ball into the mix, and suddenly you’re the hero.

How did you decide on the three locations you cover in the films?

One of the reasons I wanted America to be one of the stories — besides the fact that I am American — is I feel America often gets left out of the development conversation. Because the assumption is America is rich. America is this big powerful nation. It’s not part of this conversation of international development. But the fact of the matter is, there are communities here like Washington DC, which has one of the highest AIDS rates in the world right now. There are communities in America that look maybe not as bad as the poorest communities in Africa, or India, but are pretty similar to some of them. Some of the footage from the nicer townships in South Africa look better than a lot of the streets in Philadelphia.

The kids from Philadelphia are part of Starfinder, a nonprofit whose mission is to keep kids off the street. Nury, one of our kids, started in the 6th grade with them. The kids at the Football for Hope Festival are between 14 and 18, but the main criteria was that they were all supposed to be youth leaders in their programs – in other words, part of their programs for years. So it wasn’t supposed to be just a kid picked up off the streets, who would do it for a couple of months and get to be part of the World Cup. It was really for kids who were dedicated to working for social change in their community. Their mission isn’t to create the next best soccer players. Their mission is more to create youth leaders. The programs themselves, their success rate isn’t based on whether the kid becomes a professional soccer player. In a city that has a 40%-plus drop-out rate, Starfinder has a 100% graduation rate. That’s their success, and it’s huge. That city has a dropout-to-prison pipeline. Mustapha is one of our main kids. In his neighborhood, it’s as high as a 50% drop-out rate. I remember reading one statistic, that said something like by the time they reach 30, something like 30% of all high school dropouts are in jail or dead. It’s a crazy stat. There’s a huge gang violence problem. And the dropout rate is tantamount with the gang rate, because you’re looking for family. You’re looking for community. One of the things the guy who started Starfinder told me was, “What they’re looking for in a gang, is the same thing that we can offer them in a soccer team.” So now, instead of having an older kid come over and say, “Why don’t you join our gang, and do this?” It’s, “Hey, why don’t you join our soccer team, and be part of this community?” So it’s a positive community, versus a negative one. They’re doing important work.

I knew I wanted to do the film on the Football For Hope festival, and I became friends with the guy who was the main organizer. The festival is run by FIFA and streetfootballworld — a nonprofit organization that’s a network of 100+ organizations around the world, all using soccer for youth empowerment. So he gave me a list of all the teams that were going, and I picked out a bunch that I was intrigued by. And I couldn’t stop thinking of Israel-Palestine, because my background is international relations, particularly with a focus on regions torn by ethnic conflicts. And, you know, I went to Kashmir, so it only makes sense my next stop is Israel-Palestine!

You see these kids who are playing together, and it flies in the face of everything you ever see about Israel and Palestine. It is through the Shimon Peres Center in Jaffa, which is the Arab district of Tel-Aviv. They joined forces with an organization based in Palestine, called Al-Quds, which actually means “Jerusalem” in Arabic. But the Peres Center organizes much of the joint interaction. Israelis aren’t allowed to go into the Palestinian-controlled areas of the territories, so the Palestinians have to come to Israel. Our kids played in Jaffa, and they were mixed from various programs. But generally the Peres programs are run as “twinned cities.” They pair up a community in Israel with a community in Palestine, and they call them “sister cities”. Sometimes they’ll play in Jerusalem, and sometimes they’ll play in another Israeli town. They never bring the Israelis into Palestine. I think there would be a lot of political backlash to that. All the games that they play together, they’re always joint teams. It’s never Israelis versus Palestinians. It’s Israelis and Palestinians on both sides playing against each other.

I was really drawn to this story because I loved the idea of packaging a social issue documentary into a soccer competition film. And these kids are laughing, and singing, and getting together, and hanging out. And you learn about Israel and Palestine, and you learn about AIDS, and you learn about gang violence, but packaged in a fun engaging story. I love the idea of of three distinctly different places, three distinct issues that are related, but not. Then it becomes universal. And you can think of any kid in any other country, facing any other issue, and they can all look at it and think, “That’s my story too.” And the way these kids are overcoming the issues they’re facing, the kids watching may be able to think, “Maybe I can too.”

What drew you to chronicling the events of When the Storm Came?

It was about a village in Kashmir that was the site of a mass rape by Indian security forces, allegedly. So the film basically follows the community a decade after the incident, and shows how the stigma continues to haunt a community once it becomes labeled that way. I like the idea of telling an intimate story from a specific perspective that is universal. So rape as tool of war has sadly been used since the dawn of time, and around the world. The crazy thing is everyone after my film was like, “Oh, it’s so sad what happens in those countries.” And I’m like, “You know, America has done it. It happens everywhere.” So the way I look at it, this village becomes an example of what’s happening to all these other communities. Through their intimate story, you can expand out and extrapolate to all these other people.

The village is along the line of control between India and Pakistan. So it’s technically part of India. And at the time when the rape happened, it was one of the most militant areas. It was just basically a throughway for terrorists coming in from Pakistan. So I got a grant from a human rights organization to do a study over the summer. It was just post-9/11, and we’d just started bombing Afghanistan. At the time, the stories about women and children from Afghanistan were ubiquitous, and they were grabbing people to actually care about their communities. So I posited the idea that women and children are adversely affected by war – not as the direct combatants, but by being caught between them. Actually, I called my research project “Caught Between Guns”, and I devised it where I would just look at women and children. Also, I’m from the region of Jammu and Kashmir, ancestrally. Bill Clinton called Kashmir the most dangerous place in the world, and yet so many people don’t know where it is, or what it is. But stories of Israel and Palestine dominate our headlines, and you don’t really hear anything about Kashmir. And now it might be in a more peaceful state than Israel and Palestine, maybe. But as far as a world “hot zone,” especially post-Afghanistan, it was at least on par with Israel and Palestine, if not potentially worse, since both sides are nuclear. And even China has a stake there, and China’s also nuclear. So it’s just a hotbed. So I thought, “If I can do a story about women and children, it can bring focus there.” And I wanted a very balanced story. I didn’t want it to be, “India is this evil empire that’s interceding in Kashmir” or “Pakistan sucks.” I wanted it to be, “It doesn’t matter what side of the politics you fall on. These are civilians who are getting caught in between all of it.” So while I was there, everyone said, “Do you know about the raped village?” They just called it “the raped village.” It was just crazy to me that there is this community that they just refer to as “the raped village”. Everyone there knew about it, and everyone there had heard about it. Yet the second you walk outside that border, no one has. So I just made it a point to find “the raped village”. So I contacted this woman who was running a women’s center out of the community at the time. She brought me out there, and I met the women. It was just a really powerful story to me, so it became my grad school thesis film.

I closed the film with the women dancing. The women are singing throughout the film. So you’re hearing about this crazy story, but then you’re seeing the power of spirit. If you go to this village, on the outside they are going to school, and they have full rich lives — as far as what a villager in Kashmir’s life would be. I think that’s the power of the human spirit, and that’s a big part of why the film did so well. It won Sundance, and it went to like 30 festivals in the states. It just resonated really well, and I think a large part of it was because of that humanity. It’s not just a story about rape. It’s a story about surviving it. When you see these women laugh, it’s like, “That could be my sister laughing” or “That could be my mother singing and dancing.” I think that’s why it resonates. Because it’s not just victims. It’s people who persevere and survive.