Pelada, a 2010 documentary featuring Gwendolyn Oxenham and Luke Boughen, is part travelogue, part love story. It is also the rare film that manages to come across as both deeply personal and universal at the same time. Pelada follows Gwendolyn and Luke as they travel the world searching for pick-up football and exploring the sides of the game that are about as far away from the bright lights and big money as imaginable.
By Greg McKay
While the romantic relationship between Gwendolyn and Luke is part of the film’s narrative, the central love story is with football. What becomes clear as the movie progresses is the deep feelings both characters have for the game, albeit expressed in different ways. For Gwendolyn, the game is competition, an activity to work hard at and enjoy the victories, big and small. Luke comes across as someone who enjoys just playing with the ball, expressing himself with each touch.
As the movie unfolds the ways in which Gwendolyn and Luke experience the game are just a few of the narratives about how love for the beautiful game manifests itself around the world. As a travel piece, Pelada is filled with interesting stops, from a prison outside La Paz to a former land-fill near Nairobi. The most engaging scenes, however, are in Brazil, Iran and Israel.
The film begins with a game in Brazil, one of the few in which neither Luke or Gwendolyn participate. It’s one of the innumerable such pick-up matches played around the world that has been going on with the same group of players for decades. With slightly stooped shoulders, growing guts and slowing steps, the passion for the game is ever present, even if the athleticism is not. Old men put their bodies in harms way for goals, argue with referees (and each other) and show a singular joy at playing that seems like it could only to be matched by young children.
In Iran, Gwendolyn navigates a conservative culture that views women’s involvement in football with suspicion. After participating in a coed game in a park the film crew is called in front of local authorities, questioned and threatened with having their entire footage from the past year destroyed. Put in touch through friends of friends Gwendolyn meets a group of young women who surreptitiously gather in parks around Tehran to play pick-up. While the players couldn’t be further from the old men in Brazil, the joy that comes across in the game is no less visceral.
While at its heart, Pelada is an idealistic film about two young Americans exploring what football means to themselves and to others around the world, a trip to Israel dispels the myth that the game heals all wounds. In Jerusalem, pick-up soccer between Jews and Palestinians devolves into arguments and accusations. While it’s not as neat a picture of the beautiful game to tell, in a modern game where women are underpaid, players of color face racist abuse all over Europe and sectarian violence is still too common, it’s important to keep in mind the challenges that the game hasn’t been able to solve.
The movie ends with a sort of rumination from Gwendolyn exploring how the game seems to stretch and change but stay the same across the world and how, no matter where you are, it’s the game that lets you in, taking you places you never thought you’d go. For anyone who’s experienced the many sides of football, from eager young kid cursing thunderstorms that cancel practice, to competitive, professional environments and on to the casual pick-up scenes of early adulthood, all the wonder, joy, friendships and beauty that the sport can provide are on display in Pelada.