I’m not exactly the sports type. Perhaps that’s why I spend so much time watching movies and writing about them on the Internet. I was always an indoor kid. I’m not even a fan of most sports movies – not because of the content, and not because I don’t understand the love for sport, but sport as a genre seems to be one of the most tired and clichéd film categories out there. Leave it to non-fiction filmmaking to engross me in the story of a sports-related subject I previously knew and cared little about. That’s exactly what the soccer documentary Pelada does, immersing me in a fascinating human story and being a damned impressive sports documentary at the same time.
Gwendolyn Oxenham and Ryan White are two Americans who had to give up their dream of being pro soccer players early in their lives. They were forced at one point to transfer their love for one thing to something else in order to feel fulfilled, while dealing with the compromised feelings that one inevitably incurs when forced to make such life decisions. But, along the way, they decide to do something drastically ambitious: travel all around the world, filming pickup games and examining how ordinary people throughout the globe interact with each other through the game.
To accomplish such a feat with the limitations – in terms of language, funding, safety, and logistics – that the filmmakers of Pelada were saddled with is simply remarkable (Luke Boughen and Rebekah Fergusson are credited alongside Oxenham and White as the directorial talent behind the camera). Appropriate for a documentary about sports, the teamwork that went into this film pays off in something that is ultimately deeply personal, emotionally resonant, engrossingly informative, and humbly objective. The combination is potent. It’s the personal factor that helps Pelada resonate.
The story starts with Oxenham and White, and the film is as much a chronicle of their personal journey (White struggles to give up his dream in exchange for law school, Oxenham often feels lost altogether) as it is a documentation of a given subject. That the film focuses on common people around the world, all connected through the universal language of soccer, rather than soccer as a professional sport is an effective means of showing how this sport, or sport in general, operates across cultures as a medium of social exchange on an immediate, non-elite level.
The travels make for some captivating revelations, notably the pickup culture in the prisons of Bolivia and the games between Jews and Muslims in Israel. In the latter sequence, the filmmakers interview a Jewish player who asserts that, despite the perception that sports brings people of disparate and conflicting culture together, it doesn’t help resolve major ideological differences. It is in this respect that the documentary explores the potential universality of sport without having any romantic pretensions of the potential unifying abilities of soccer. It is in this and several other respects that, for a documentary that focuses so much on the personal journey of the two people involved at its center, Pelada at the same time shows an exceptional ability to take a layered, complex, and informed view of its subject. But it is the personal aspect of the film that is its greatest strength and emotional center, a grounding that engages even a viewer as uninformed as me with the subject through its universal themes and engrossing narrative.