an interview with professional soccer documentary director shilpi gupta

through soccer, shilpi gupta aims to help change the lives of teens around the world.
through soccer, shilpi gupta aims to help change the lives of teens around the world. (photo credit: Taneisha Berg)

Looking back over the last few years of my writing, you find that most of the thousands upon thousands of the words I’ve written have been spent talking about the beautiful game itself: the players, the teams, the managers, the fans and the culture that surrounds it.

But in all the time I’ve spent grumbling over failed strategies and transfers, or singing the praises of the great things I’ve watched take place on the pitch, I’ve actually talked very little about the good things the game of soccer is really capable of accomplishing. And that’s a shame. Because with love of the game nearly universal across the globe, the sport has the unique power to be used as a vehicle for social change on every continent and in nearly every country and culture.

And what better way to learn just how the game is capable of giving back to the world that adores it than to speak to someone who actually keeps track of such things with video.

Enter Shilpi Gupta. An award-winning director  — her documentary When the Storm Came won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival — Shilpi’s latest project takes an intimate look at how soccer can inspire peace among teenagers from around the world. Changing the Game follows three sets of teens from inner-city Philadelphia, AIDS-ravaged South Africa, and war-torn Israel and Palestine on their journeys from their homelands to compete in South Africa at the Football for Peace Festival as part of the 2010 World Cup.

Shilpi spoke with me about how she chose to focus on soccer’s powerful reach, about the children whom the game has helped rise above their chaotic backgrounds, and her progress on bringing Changing the Game to screens the world over.

DJ @ WSOTP: Let’s start at the beginning: how did you come to find yourself in the film making business? I’ve read that you haven’t always had a camera in your hands…

Shilpi Gupta: Well, I have always had a camera in my hand… but it was a still camera! When I was a kid it was my dream to be a National Geographic photographer, but I was convinced into the belief that photography was a hobby. I knew whatever I did, I wanted to work to help improve the lives of others.

So in college, I focused on international development, which led me to study abroad in China and intern with Voice of America and AFP in Beijing. That’s where I discovered the intersection of photography, telling stories, and journalism.

Then after college, I lived in India. I was volunteering with street children and did an article/photo essay on child laborers — that’s how I discovered the connection between social change and journalism.

So when I returned to New York, I started applying to journalism schools. But in the meantime, I took continuing ed classes in film making, just to see… and by the time I was done, I knew I wanted to focus on documentary film.

DJ @ WSOTP: Even though you currently work on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Gayle King, you made a name for yourself with your documentary When the Storm Came — a look at a village in Kashmir that survived a mass rape two decades ago during the region’s long running conflict — which won the prestigious Jury Prize and the Sundance Film Festival. With “Changing the Game” being another social doc, do you prefer the documentary format more than any other?

joy from just a ball. soccer has the power to be a vehicle for social change.
joy from just a ball. soccer has the power to be a vehicle for social change. (photo credit: Säärah Kölsch)

Shilpi Gupta: That’s a tough one… not necessarily. I studied documentary, so I feel more comfortable in the medium and it’s a more direct path to meet my goals of giving voice to the more hidden stories. But I do believe a powerful dramatized version of a story can have just as much, if not more, impact! For example, Hotel Rwanda probably reached significantly more people than many documentaries on the subject.

But I truly do love capturing people’s stories. I mean my job is to talk to people and learn about their lives. As stressful as that can be — I can’t just write the scene I want to have unfold or tell my “actors” to do it — it’s pretty amazing! And through it I have met people from all walks of life all over the world whom I probably would otherwise never have had the opportunity to meet.

DJ @ WSOTP: How did the “Changing the Game” project come about? Was it birthed from a smaller project that evolved into a bigger one, or was it planned from the ground up?

Shilpi Gupta: Yeah, I guess you can call it a smaller one. I was following this amazing organization, Grassroot Soccer that my cousin had volunteered for at Dartmouth. And I loved the image of using soccer to talk to children about really hard-hitting issues. At first we were searching for the narrative just through GRS. Then it was about GRS and their sister program from D.C., and then through them I was introduced to the Football for Hope Festival – and that’s when it all came together. It became this global youth driven story, connecting teens from across the world through an inspiring international street soccer festival at the World Cup… It just got GINORMOUS!

A lot of people told me it would be harder to do a multi-issue/multi-country film — not to mention multi-lingual — but I really loved the idea that it became more universal. A child anywhere watching the film would be able to see themselves somewhere in this story: and hopefully because of that, they’ll be inspired by these teens.

DJ @ WSOTP: With there being so many ways for people around the world to connect on social matters such as those highlighted in your film, why did you choose soccer as the medium for your message? Have you always been into the sport?

Shilpi Gupta: Well, soccer is the world’s sport. But no, truthfully, I haven’t always been into the sport. In fact, my parents love to regale people with stories of me running away from the ball as a little girl. I don’t know if I believe them, but…

Anyway, I taught video production to kids in the Bronx and Salt Lake City in a joint music/video program, and I saw how much we were able to get the kids to start thinking critically about their communities through that. So when I pictured this sport that people get so impassioned by, that kids love? I mean, all sports generate some sort of fanaticism, but soccer… soccer is religion. Soccer engenders a fervor like nothing else. I just knew it would work.

DJ @ WSOTP: How did you go about selecting the film’s subjects? Was there a desire to hear a voice and perspective from as many corners of the globe as possible?

Shilpi Gupta: As soon as I heard about these programs all over the world using soccer to tackle different social issues and empower youth, I loved the idea of showing diverse voices. Though they may be separated by oceans and continents, speak different languages, and face different challenges – they have universal ties. They share a language of soccer. And they share a goal of a better life.

To be honest there were many programs that were attending the festival that sounded amazing. There’s a program in Cambodia that works with children in minefields. Magic Bus in India works with children from the slums of Bombay. Football United works with refugees from all over the world living in Australia. But we had limited time, resources and had to make quick decisions.

I knew I wanted South Africa to be one of the stories since it was the home of the World Cup. WhizzKids United teaches HIV/AIDS prevention through soccer in the township that has the highest HIV rate in the world.

And as I thought about it, I wanted the US to be part of the story. America is so often left out of the international development dialogue – and let’s face it, we have communities where kids have to face life and death struggles every day. I never knew Philadelphia had as high a drop out, homicide, and incarceration rate as it does. But Starfinder keeps their kids off the streets in soccer programs, graduating at 100% and many go on to higher education.

That left the variable of the final program — and I don’t know if it’s my history with war and conflict, or growing up in NY — but I just couldn’t get Israel and Palestine out of my head. The war is always portrayed as so impenetrable. But through the Peres Center, they have teens from both backgrounds playing together on the same team.

shilpi followed teams from around the world.
shilpi followed teams from around the world, documenting how each has overcome challenges in their daily lives.

DJ @ WSOTP: Tell me a little about the process for selecting the music for the documentary, which your Kickstarter page describes as a “cutting-edge soundtrack pulling in hip hop artists local to the teens’ communities”. As a big fan of hip hop, I’d imagine you’ve stumbled across some pretty amazing tracks.

Shilpi Gupta: I’m so excited about this! We haven’t found all the music yet, but I know I want to create this soundtrack.

I remember in 2001, I spent the summer volunteering in Tanzania. I was standing on a beach in this artist community, and these guys were rapping in Swahili over a Tupac song. I just loved it — there were just so many cultural layers and implications to it, and that stayed with me.

All across the world, hip hop — kind of like soccer — has become a universal language. Sometimes with a negative message, but often with a positive one. It’s instantly youthful and energizing, while at the same taking influences from local populations.

So I want to find local artists from each of the communities – Israel, Palestine, South Africa and Philadelphia – with positive messages that underscore the messages of the film itself. I thought it would be difficult to find Hebrew and Arabic rappers who would do a joint song, but there’s this amazing group called Heartbeat that already does!

DJ @ WSOTP: Much of filming already completed was in the lead up to and during the 2010 World Cup, and I know there’s further filming ahead of Brazil 2014. What does the remaining timeline for the film look like?

Shilpi Gupta: We’re not actually including the festival in Brazil in this film. Instead, we will end the film with a tease to Brazil 2014. Each of the organizations again plans on sending a team to the 2014 Football for Hope Festival, and we are planning to film that prep and capture the excitement of the next set of teens as they get psyched to go to Brazil.

The end goal is to have the film finished and ready to premiere at the 2014 World Cup!

DJ @ WSOTP: With such a long timeline, what have been some of your biggest struggles with keeping the project moving along?

Shilpi Gupta: The biggest challenge, as always, is funding. With three continents, a big international film festival, four-plus languages – resources go quickly.

And even though I’ve laid out and re-laid out the film on paper, I know the structure and pacing is going to take careful maneuvering. But I have an amazing editor who has worked on several multiple-character feature docs before for Morgan Spurlock’s company, and I’ve surrounded myself with a great team of advisors – including the creative team at Bombo Sport and Entertainment – who have decades of history in narrative sports documentaries.

DJ @ WSOTP: Have you had a chance to follow -up with any of the subjects from the South Africa 2010 round of filming? I’d love to know how their experiences then have shaped their lives now.

Shilpi Gupta: I have! I’m in close touch with most of them. And it’s amazing: most of them have a relationship with the programs still.

the hope is that this film will serve as an inspiration for many other teens to improve their own lives.
the hope is that this film will serve as an inspiration for many other teens to improve their own lives. (photo credit: Säärah Kölsch)

I filmed with Nury and Mustapha last year — a follow up as they were running a summer camp program through Starfinder. Nury actually said after she graduates she wants to start a program in Colombia like Starfinder. Abed and Liron still go to Peres Center events, and I’m planning a follow-up shoot with them in October. And I filmed with Sphume and Zime running a program in Lamontville a year after the festival.

DJ @ WSOTP: In all the time you’ve put into this project so far — in all of the places you’ve been and the people you’ve met — has there been one moment that really stands out in your memory where you thought to yourself, “This is the reason I started this documentary?” 

Shilpi Gupta: One moment?! I have many moments, and keep having them as I read through the translations that come in!  But I guess the thing that stands out in my head the most is when the French team sat down with the Israeli-Palestinian team to learn more about the situation and how they have come to represent peace. The French team was largely Algerian – and they were just so curious and listening so intently – despite the crazy translation situation! Hebrew into Arabic into French and then back!

Another image that stands out in my head was when the kids in Alexandra Township had bonded so much with Team USA that they were wearing USA tees and chanting “USA USA” on the sidelines during the game!

DJ @ WSOTP: With all of the soccer you’ve watched so far, have you soft spot or a liking for any particular team? Both with the kids… and at the World Cups?

Shilpi Gupta: The kids are like my own, so I love them all!

As for the World Cups – I’d say Ghana. We were at the Uruguay-Ghana match, and you can’t walk away from that game without feeling for Ghana! For a professional player, I just can’t help but love Lionel Messi. Besides his incredible playing, after seeing his 60 Minutes/Showtime profile and learning about his foundation’s work – it’s my dream that he comes on as an official supporter of the film.

DJ @ WSOTP: What are you hoping to achieve with Changing the Game? Raise awareness? Make a difference in the lives of the participants?

Shilpi Gupta: The goal is to make a difference in the lives of kids beyond the participants and the Festival. The Festival has real world limitations – the child has to have access to and be in a program, not to mention be there. The film can reach children outside of those restrictions. And what’s more, I have planned multi-media outlets for the outreach after the film is done that will allow children to engage directly with one another and hopefully inspire them to change the game in their own communities!

DJ @ WSOTP: I’m sure there will be readers who will be interested, so how can people get involved with the project? Also, if you need an extra cameraman in Brazil, or even just someone to carry bags for you, just let me know….

Shilpi Gupta: Ha… I would love for you to come with me to Brazil!!

But we do need all the support we can get. We’re in the middle of a massive Kickstarter campaign to raise funds (see the video below), but we also need to show the world that there is an audience ready and waiting for this film. Backers on Kickstarter equal an engaged audience! So no matter how big or small, please donate and help to spread the word. Every dollar counts – because every dollar, every backer, is one more person who cares!

DJ @ WSOTP: Well Shilpi, this has been super informative and interesting. Thanks so much for the opportunity to speak with you about your film!

Shilpi Gupta: Thank you! It’s an honor to be featured on the Wrong Side of the Pond!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.