Football Rebels: Sarajevo Film Review

Football as a vehicle for political protest and social change.

The documentary follows the lives of five footballers who made their mark both on and off the field.

The French soccer legend turned actor Eric Cantona presents this globe-trotting documentary, a tribute to five fellow footballers who courageously risked their lives and careers by taking high-profile stands against political and social injustice. Co-directed by two award-winning journalists, Football Rebels combines serious subject matter with a sharply edited, fast-paced, glossy visual style. Filmed in multiple languages, it also features commentary from eminent guests including Cantona’s film-making comrade, Ken Loach.

Shortly after its gala screening at Sarajevo Film Festival last week, Football Rebels premiered on the highbrow Franco-German TV channel Arte, one of the film’s financial backers, with simultaneous release on home entertainment formats in France. A similar small-screen future seems likely in other markets too, although the film’s starry guest list and classy production values may help secure theatrical runs in some football-loving territories.

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But it is not necessary to be a soccer fan to enjoy Football Rebels. Indeed, like this reviewer, you can feel utter indifference towards the world’s favorite sport and still find these stories inspiring and informative. As it happens, there is very little actual football footage in the film, because these are primarily stories of heroic principle and self-sacrifice away from the game.

Four of the film’s five “rebels” are interviewed on camera. Didier Drogba of Cote d’Ivoire, who played peacemaker in his country’s civil war. The Chilean Carlos Caszely, who took a daring  public stand against General Pinochet’s brutal regime. Algeria’s Rachid Mekhloufi, who defected from France to join a symbolic Algerian propaganda team in protest against French colonial rule. And Bosnia’s Predrag Pašić, who braved bombs and bullets in war-torn Sarajevo to run a football school for children from multi-faith backgrounds.

A fifth subject agreed to appear in Football Rebels, but died in December last year, shortly before his scheduled interview. The flamboyant Brazilian midfielder Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira was not just a world-class player but also a qualified doctor, public intellectual, newspaper columnist, aspiring novelist, keen smoker, heavy drinker, national hero and high-profile campaigner for democracy when Brazil was still a military dictatorship. Universally known by his first name only, Sócrates deserves a feature-length film of his own.

As well as backing the film through his Canto Bros production company, Cantona’s chief on-screen contribution is as gruff anchorman, setting up each chapter with his signature mix of homespun philosophy and vague menace. There is an edge of Napoleonic arrogance in his puffed-up public persona, but always undercut by deadpan self-mockery. Anyone who saw Cantona in Loach’s Looking for Eric, or his hilarious media interviews during his tenure at Manchester United, will be familiar with his knowing brand of Gallic pomposity.

With limited time for each profile, this densely packed documentary is sometimes guilty of glibness and sloganeering. There is scant room for ambivalence or complexity in these compressed life stories, which are relentlessly positive and often frustratingly low on context. That said, the film-makers cover a lot of ground, jumping fluidly between different decades, continents and languages. Unlike the game which inspired it, Football Rebels is never boring.

Venue: Sarajevo film festival screening, July 11

Production companies: 13 Productions, Canto Bros, Arte France

Cast: Eric Cantona, Didier Drogba, Carlos Caszely, Rachid Mekhloufi, Predrag Pasic, Ken Loach

Directors: Gilles Rof, Gilles Perez

Writers: Gilles Rof, Gilles Perez

Producers: Cyrille Perez, Gilles Perez

Cinematography: Patrick Feinstein, Gherdoussi Sylvain Luini

Editor: Emmanuel Besnard, Laurence Generet

Sales company: Arte France

Rating TBC, 90 minutes