Fields of Dreams

January 31, 2009
Follow the bouncing ball: scene from The Soccer Project.

Follow the bouncing ball: scene from The Soccer Project. Courtesy The Soccer Project

Gwendolyn Oxenham and Luke Boughen have played pickup soccer with inmates in the San Pedro Prison in La Paz, Bolivia.They've suited up against Iraqi expats in London, run with teenage soccer nuts in Marseilles, and competed in an Arab-versus-Israeli game in a park outside Jerusalem's Old City.

Both former varsity soccer players—Oxenham at Duke, and Boughen at Notre Dame—they've spent much of the last year traveling the world in search of a good game, and capturing it all on film for a documentary-in-the-works tentatively titled The Soccer Project.

The project was born during the spring of 2007, when Oxenham '04, on a visit to her alma mater, found herself chatting with teammate Rebekah Fergusson, then a senior, about future plans. As students, the two had overlapped by just one year, but during that time, they had bonded over a love of documentary filmmaking, and each earned a certificate from Duke's Center for Documentary Studies (CDS).

Both hoped to continue their storytelling, and they quickly conceived of a documentary film project that would explore pickup soccer traditions around the world.

Oxenham sent an e-mail message to Ryan White '04, who had been her camera partner in one documentary-studies class, asking him if he would be interested in working on another project together. He quickly signed on.

Inspired by the classic surfing documentary Endless Summer, the group decided that the film would follow Oxenham and her boyfriend, Boughen, on a trip around the world. Instead of searching for the perfect wave, they would instead find and play in pickup soccer games, with Fergusson and White behind the camera.

The idea behind the film, says Oxenham, who, like Boughen and Fergusson, had previously played pickup games during semesters and summers spent abroad, was to show the unifying power of soccer: We're all different, but we're all the same.

"We're planning to go to twenty-five countries," White said early on. "And there won't be one of those countries where they don't have pickup soccer."

The group planned three separate trips. They visited South America in the fall of 2007 and Europe and Africa this past summer (spending the months between at CDS editing 120 hours of footage down to a thirty-minute rough cut). They plan to take the third trip, to Asia and the Middle East, early this year and have a final version of the film ready to enter in festivals this summer.

Some of their games have been set against picturesque backgrounds—beaches, mountains, salt flats, not to mention a game in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

There have also been moments of humor, at least in retrospect. In Innsbruck, Austria, they were arrested after trying to use counterfeit tickets, purchased from a scalper, to get into a Euro 2008 professional match (they were ultimately let off when they were able to provide the authorities video of the scalper). On the upside, as they were taken to the police station, they walked past a pickup game between Red Cross workers and paramedics working the game.

But other moments have been downright scary. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, after learning that most upscale games are pay-per-play affairs hosted on small courts inside restaurants, they made their way to a poor neighborhood where passersby shouted, "They're going to rob you." A policeman warned them that a news crew was mugged just a week before, but undeterred, they jumped in a street game there.

In Rio de Janiero, Brazil, an NGO worker escorted them past machine-gun-wielding teenagers at the entrance to a favela, essentially a slum run by drug lords, where they joined several games, including one between waiters who play from one to four a.m.

Still, says White, in each situation, they felt protected by those with whom they played. "When you're actually there, nothing seems as scary or as different as what you'd expect."