25. 5. 2019

How not to become a professional football player

The best place to make money as a football player in decline, is China, where football is the new religion. But what about kids in a rural mountain village who have never even seen a football in their lives? They might just need a teacher like Xi Ge to explain the rules of the game and inject them with a passion for playing. Football mania high up in the mountains, setting social dynamics and village routines in motion. Until a disastrous earthquake makes an end to their happy childhood days. Will sports again help them to move forward? We asked director Xu Cheng, who’s YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE takes us up to the high plateaus of Sichuan.

You can see this film

SAT | 25.05 | 14:30 | GOLDEN APPLE CINEMA 6

MON | 27.05 | 11:00 | GOLDEN APPLE CINEMA 3

The film opens with an intriguing sentence: “Let me introduce myself. I am this ball.” This story is told from the perspective of an old football?

Xu Geng: The happiness and sadness of adults and children in this film are all linked to this football. From the very first beginning we looked for an interesting perspective to tell our story. We tried different perspectives: from the children (like Sang Guo or Tank), or from an adult (like the gym teacher or the principal), but none of these options seemed fully satisfying. Finally, we found out that this old and worn-out football was like an eye catching all the things we see, and sometimes even things we can't see. Most important is that this football can understand the hearts of the children and can be their best friend. That’s how a ball became our main observer.

The story takes place in a beautiful but isolated part of China. The school principal describes it as “a remote corner of the mountains where everybody wants to leave”.

Xu Geng: With 9.6 million square kilometres and 1.4 billion inhabitants, China is a huge country. The eastern region has seen a better social and economic development, due to natural resources. The western part is a more mountainous area, where natural conditions and living standards are relatively lagging behind. Many people want to escape from these remote areas and head for the city, where life has more opportunities to offer. The film is situated more than 10 years ago, that region has changed a lot since then. The place where the earthquake took place has been rebuilt as a new, beautiful home, just like the New Xin Ming Elementary School that you see at the end of the movie.

It is strange for European children to realize that there are kids in this world who have never played football. At the same time we hear that football in China is getting more and more popular these days.

Xu Geng: In China, the popularity of football is increasing enormously, especially in the cities, where more and more football fields appear where children and adults come to play. But as I said, China is huge and the country’s social and economic development is unbalanced. In some remote areas, even flat land is hard to find. Playing football is obviously impossible there, and some of those children might have never seen a real football. All their knowledge of football (and many other things) comes from pictures and television. These kids have their own games and toys, that most likely we have never seen before. The world is big, there are always things we don't understand.

In one scene the kids are playing soccer in the pouring rain. How was that scene recorded?

Xu Geng: Filming is impossible when it rains like this; as a director you’re in commend of many things, but not of nature. In order to actually shoot the scene, we had several fire trucks spraying water into the sky, creating a heavy rainfall. I’ll tell you a secret: from the very beginning, I have always been worried and didn’t have the courage to shoot that scene. We were filming in winter!?! Even if the Sichuan region in wintertime isn’t covered in snow, still it is extremely cold. My biggest concern was the children getting sick from the icy rain. Although the film absolutely needed this scene, I didn’t dare to record it until the end of the shooting period. We prepared everything as precisely as possible, we set up tents on the riverside, collected electric heaters and dry towels, the entire staff was stand-by to help the children ... And then we started shooting.

And?

Xu Geng: The rain was heavy, wind was strong, temperature was cold. Everything was soaked under the artificial rain, except the camera that was covered. Every shot was difficult so we had to do many takes. At first, some kids complained the rain was too hard or even painful. But as we continued, they got more and more excited. When we took a break to let the actors warm up, some kept playing in the water. Only one child couldn’t help but crying … because it was in the script. All the things I worried about, finally didn't happen. The next day, every child appeared again on set, no one fell sick. Maybe that was a gift they got from playing football: a healthy body.

The teacher in YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE is more than just a teacher. What other important roles can a teacher play in the lives of young people?

Xu Geng: Xi Ge (meaning ‘happy brother’ in Chinese) is special. He could have applied for better schools in better regions, but he himself decided to apply for this remote mountain village. Originally being a math teacher, he now prefers to teach ‘physical education’. Many Chinese people believe that gaining knowledge is the most important thing on earth. Because of his own childhood experience, Xi Ge believes other things can be important too, such as music, or playing football. These things will make you more happy and powerful. Besides physical education, Xi Ge also teaches other classes. This used to be a common thing in schools in rural China - because there weren’t enough teachers, everyone had to take on several courses. Probably Xi Ge never realized what wonderful things he was doing, nor what important marks he left on the lives of those children. Remembering how somebody helped him through his own childhood years, now he grows up doing the same. YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE is the team song of Liverpool Football Club. I think people appreciate this song especially because of this sentence: You’ll never walk alone.

Sports is often all about “victory or loss”. In your film, other things are equally important as winning or losing. What is truly important for these children?

Xu Geng: Winning is a good thing, but losing isn’t bad either. What this film really cares about is not children overcoming their opponents, but overcoming themselves. I hope people will notice this line at the end of the film: “So far, none of these children have become football players, but Xi Ge continues teaching children to play.” He is not training professional athletes, but raising healthy and brave people. In their future lives, whether those will be filled with luck or adversity, they will know how to remain optimistic.

The film introduces a girl as a true soccer hero! But she’s also a charming and interesting character.

Xu Geng: Long before the script was written, we were watching a kids’ football game, with two powerful teams, playing like adults. We noticed a frail goalkeeper fiercely defending his territory. Suddenly, his hair was hanging loose and we were surprised to find out it was a girl. We immediately understood our script was in need of a brave girl. She is a petite football hero and also just an ordinary little girl-next-door, secretly in love with that boy ‘Colonel’. Sometimes she is more brave than the boys, sometimes she is spoiled by her Grandpa like a naughty little princess. In a boys-only-football team, the only girl Sang Guo is like a ray of sunlight. In general, the boys in the team don’t see her as a girl. Otherwise her nickname wouldn’t have been “submachine gun”.