Sunday, January 4, 2009

Champing At The Bit

Despite everyone's wishes for peace on earth and a fresh start toward rebuilding the global economy, 2009 began instead with a new war in the Middle East. There are times when the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems like it can never be resolved. 

When the situation gets too depressing, I always remember the wise words of Tevye, the dairyman, in Fiddler on the Roof.  After a particularly ugly confrontation, the rebellious Perchik insists that the Jews should fight back against the Russians:  "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

"Great," sighs Tevye, "and that way the whole world will be blind and toothless."

Even if Israel and Palestine can't resolve their differences, it doesn't mean that other nations can't make some effort to find common ground.  A curiously powerful documentary scheduled to be shown at this year's Berlin & Beyond Film Festival helps make that point with surprising grace and dignity.

Written by Corinna and David Assmann (and co-directed by David Assman), Football Under Cover is as strange a film as the events it reflects.  When Marlene, who plays on a women's soccer team in Berlin learns through a male friend that there is a women's soccer team in Iran -- a team which has never had a chance to play against a women's team from another country -- she convinces her friends to attempt some "football [soccer] diplomacy." With the help of family contacts in Teheran, they try to arrange a match between the two teams.

The Assmanns' documentary is not so much about the game that took place in April 2006 or, for that matter, about the struggle to find corporate sponsors who would help overcome the mysteries of Iran's bureaucracy. In some ways this film is about the refusal of youth to let a dream die simply because strangers are unwilling to cooperate. In other ways the documentary offers a stark contrast between the multiculturalism found in today's Germany and Iran's strict Muslim society, which treats its women as second-class citizens.

In their directors' note about the film, the Assmanns write:
"Our documentary is an integral part of the story which it tells. What is simultaneously paradoxical and unique about it is that it does not document something which others do but rather accompanies and illustrates, even makes possible, what we ourselves do.

The game in question would never have taken place without this film. The film lent things an air of authority and put pressure on the powers that be to not simply cancel things at the last minute again. The film both motivated us and made us immune to the pressure from the authorities who kept trying to call things off. The financing for the film also covered the costs incurred in organizing the game.  The film therefore depicts an event, which would never have occurred without such depiction.

This is not primarily a film about football. Our main goal (as it were) was to convey an image of Iran that goes beyond the usual cliches and stereotypes. We want to show another side to the country, a different one to those which are largely prevalent; the strict and religious theocracy, the joyless 'terror regime' or even the decadent society, obsessed with fun, parties, and cosmetic surgery. By creating a cultural dialogue via football, we are trying to put across a more realistic image, one that is not ideologically warped from the outset. No politics, just passion."

You don't have to be a sports fan to be fascinated by this film. Few of us get a street level view of life in Iran and it can be an eye opener. We witness the ways in which members of the German team must adapt the fashions and cultural strictures of Iran's society. And we also get some big surprises from the Iranian women once they are free to express themselves.

* * * * * * * *
Watching Football Under Cover brought to mind the heady days when ping pong diplomacy achieved a major breakthrough in international relations. Whether the fruit of smaller athletic competitions (the 31st World Table Tennis Championship held in Japan in April of 1971) or of world-wide Olympic events, these breakthroughs help countries build new and powerful bonds. When San Francisco and Shanghai became sister cities in 1980 -- long before any talk of a global economy -- theirs was the first such relationship between a pair of American and Chinese cities.

As I watched Football Under Cover, I tried to remember how impenetrable China seemed back then.  Who could have believed that a simple offer to play ping pong against a Chinese team in 1971 could have led to President Nixon's historic trip to Beijing the following year, much less Beijing hosting the 2008 Olympics!

Back when I was writing about opera in the Bay Area Reporter and occasionally freelancing articles to Opera News magazine, I remember my reaction to the initial announcement that John Adams would be composing a new opera called Nixon in China. I wondered how Nixon , who liked to play the piano, might like to hear himself portrayed in musical terms. 

My attempt to contact the former President met a dead end soon after I contacted his law offices in New York. After listening to the following excerpt from one of the famed Nixon tapes, I have a much better understanding of why my request was denied.

Just as Puccini referenced the Star Spangled Banner in Act I of Madama Butterfly, so does John Adams in the scene where Nixon (James Maddalena) touches down in Beijing and is met by Chou En-Lai (Sanford Sylvan). It's hard to believe that the opera, which received its world premiere October 22, 1987 at the Houston Grand Opera, is now more than 20 years old!

Those memories came back to haunt me while watching Frank Langella's bravura performance in Frost/Nixon. Beautifully written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, the famed showdown between the disgraced President and British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen) actually includes a scene with Langella at the piano. But it is his rambling soliloquy -- as a drunk Tricky Dick battles his demons during a late night phone call to Frost -- that really nails his portrait of Nixon.

Frost/Nixon does a superb job of capturing two monstrous egos as each one tries to gain a solid enough footing to throw the other off balance. Even if you loathed Nixon as a person, you'll come away from this film better able to respect his intelligence, his intuition and, perhaps, thanks to the distance of time, his self-loathing. The film is definitely worth your time, especially to help show how art (film, opera, sculpture, etc.) paints a different picture than the way in which a true documentary format would depict a person, place, or event. Here's the trailer:

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