Close-up on a world with too few sporting chances

Film shows 'wide-eyed' Soas football side meeting Middle Eastern realities. David Matthews reports

August 9, 2012

When a university sports film makes its debut a week before the beginning of the Olympics in a cinema in Stratford, next to the main site of the London Games, you might expect something akin to the rousing 1981 classic Chariots of Fire.

But the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies has instead made a documentary that tells the story of the institution's football team as it tours the Middle East to build bridges with communities in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Over the Wall has been billed as "more important than the Olympics" by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and challenges the idea that the Games are open to all, say its directors.

The narrator acknowledges early on that Soas is "not known for its football team", and the tour starts with a bad-tempered match against the elite American University in Cairo, where Soas players mouth off about cheating and poor offside decisions.

The film then shows the players watching the storming of the Israeli embassy by protesters in Cairo in September 2011. One of Soas' team even catches a document flung from the building as it is ransacked.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, co-director Jasper Kain, a Soas graduate and former president of its students' union, acknowledged that the team's interaction with locals "can be characterised by their wide-eyed naivety at times".

Yet the trip "triggered a transformation in both their awareness, but more importantly their desire to act politically" as the squad observed the difficulty of life in Egypt, where they play against a team in a slum in sight of a burning rubbish heap.

It is when the Soas players manage to get into the West Bank that the film becomes most explicitly political, as they are welcomed by local teams and mobbed by children.

The Soas players speak out in support of the Palestinian statehood bid, which was being put to the United Nations at the time of filming.

That the football tour coincided with Palestine's UN membership bid was "serendipity as opposed to cunning planning", Mr Kain said.

Although the film does feature Israeli interviewees, and the team unsuccessfully tries to contact Israeli university teams to arrange a match, the documentary lends support to the view that the Olympics' "notion of participation" does not apply when it comes to Palestine, he argued.

The Palestinians will be bringing to the London Games "a team of only five athletes who struggle to train due to a lack of facilities back home and the difficulties of travelling to train", Mr Kain said.

"The Olympic Charter states that the 'practice of sport is a human right'... sadly this initial spirit of the Olympics seems to have been lost when applied to the case of the Palestinians."

The film's other director is Matthew Kay, a graduate of Queen Mary, University of London. Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, is an associate producer.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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