It was tragedy, not triumph, that made the Chapecoense football club world-famous. The small-city team’s Cinderella story came to a calamitous halt in November 2016, when their charter flight to the Copa Sudamericana finals in Colombia crashed into a mountain, decimating the team’s roster of players as well as its staff. Their losses and their resilience are brought into clear-eyed, sympathetic focus in the documentary Nossa Chape, a stirring portrait of individual and communal grief.
Filmmakers Michael and Jeff Zimbalist and their co-director, Julian Duque, begin their story in the traumatic weeks after the crash and follow the ensuing months’ challenges for the Associação Chapecoense de Futebol. As with their suspenseful examination of so-called narco-soccer in The Two Escobars, the Zimbalists have made a gripping sports film that requires no knowledge of the sport.
The drama that unfolds is rooted deeply in the bond between the team and their ardent fans in Chapeco, a remote city of 200,000 in southern Brazil, far from the cosmopolitan centers of Rio and Sao Paulo. Having begun in the 1970s with a stadium carved out of dirt, and having ascended through the ranks to qualify for Brazil’s top division in 2014, Chapecoense was poised to claim a higher profile in South American soccer when it boarded LaMia Flight 2933 in Bolivia. Hauntingly, phone footage from the plane before takeoff captures the players’ joyful excitement over their impending match in Medellin.
Through news footage, the film concisely explains how the now-defunct airline’s cost-cutting maneuvers left the jet without fuel when it was eight miles short of its destination, killing 71 of the 77 people aboard. But the directors’ real interest isn’t culpability, moral or legal; it’s the process of regrouping, rebuilding and simply carrying on for those who remain — notably the three athletes who survived the crash, all with serious injuries. Goalkeeper Jakson Follman loses a leg and stays on with the team as its official ambassador, while left back Alan Ruschel and central defender Helio Neto soldier on through surgeries and physical rehabilitation in hopes of rejoining the squad.
Not only that squad but every aspect of the organization — administrators, coaches, medical personnel — would need to be restaffed within the brief two months before the kickoff of the new season. Newly recruited players speak of being motivated by a sense of responsibility beyond the job itself. But the forward-focused approach of the new coach, Vagner Mancini — he insists that continued mourning will hurt the athletes’ performance — clashes with the strong family vibe that once defined Chapecoense. When he speaks of his deceased teammates, Odair “Nenem” Souza, a player who wasn’t on the fateful flight, can’t hide his fathomless grief or his survivor’s guilt, and it’s especially heartening when he plays a crucial role in bringing the unhappily newfangled team back to its roots.
In one of the most intense moments in the film, the spiritually inclined Neto bristles at the increasing commerciality of the reconstructed organization, and the ways he and his fellow survivors are carted out for photo ops as symbols of its expansion and fiscal health. Members of the board of directors wield words like “branding” and “internationalization” with glee. In unexpected and provocative ways, Nossa Chape is the story of the sports marketplace.
Interviews and verité footage of players, widows, parents and Chapeco’s heartbroken mayor, Luciano Buligon, build a poignant portrait of the team’s central place in the local identity. As if by instinct, upon hearing the terrible news of the crash, shocked residents of the city filled the stadium to honor their “fallen warriors.” Chapecoense’s profile was heightened because of the horror that it endured, and the Zimbalists‘ film is a thoughtful examination of how its “internationalization” is a charged and complicated thing.
But it also reveals, particularly in the emotional reception the soccer squad eventually receives in Medellin, how affection for “Our Chape” took on profound new meaning beyond hometown borders. Nossa Chape is a testament to how moving forward does not require leaving the past behind.
Production company: All Rise Films
Distributor: Fox Sports Films
Directors-screenwriters: Jeff Zimbalist, Michael Zimbalist
Co-director: Julian Duque
Producers: Michael Zimbalist, Jeff Zimbalist, Colby Gottert
Executive producers: Charlie Dixon, Eric Shanks, Gabe Spitzer
Directors of photography: Federico Pardo, Julian Duque, Andres “Comanche” Vergara, Colby Gottert
Editor: Luis Dechtiar
Composer: Alejandro Reyes
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Sales: CAA, Wild Bunch