Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 28, 2018 4:04 pm 
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Associacao Chapecoense de Futebol (ACF), "Chapacoense" or simply "Chape" for short, is the soccer team of the remote far southern Brazilian town of Chapecó, population 200,000, founded in 1973. Starting with a dirt stadium, the rags-to-riches ACF team grew in strength and popularity to become a serious player recognized nationally, with enormous local popularity even by the standards of a country that loves "futebol" as does no other.

In November 2016, on the way from Bolivia to Medellín to play in the final game in their division, the commercial plane crashed, killing 71 people, 19 players, 25 team staff/administers, 20 reporters, and seven crew members. Only three passengers survived: three players on the team, all severely injured. This documentary is the story of this tragic event and how the team and the city struggled back thereafter. It's a powerful account of sports survival and sport spirit that does not neglect other sides, social, political, even legal, of the event and its aftermath. There is plenty of phone recordings, tapes, sports footage, but it is the voiceover narrative and the many vivid interviews that are the heart of this involving documentary.

The Zimbalist brothers do their job from the outset, sketching in the history and status of Chapacoense economically so that when the crash comes, and the reactions are shown, one sobs. The losses boggle the mind. Always and especially an athletic team lost in a crash is tragic, but the sadness is intensified given the importance of soccer in Brazil and the special status this team had acquired for citizens and fans. The stadium filled up with people spontaneously in the wake of the tragic news.

It was plain that for all the mourning, the team could not die. It was necessary to hire a surviving administrator to be the new president, hire a coach from outside, Vagner Mancini, and hire several dozen new team members. Left back Alan Ruschel, goalkeeper Jackson Follman, and central defender Helio Neto, the player-crash survivors, become important symbols and ambassadors of the spirit of Chapacoense. There is also Odair "Nenem" Souza, a team member heard from who didn't go, who suffers from the most acute survivor guilt, and he's notably heard from too, as are some of the widows, and the wives of Alan, Jackson, and Neto. Mancini and the administrators are sometimes heard form. A young leader of fan supporters is another voice to define the audience. Not heard from: the new team members.

Much of the film is focused on sourness, but it's a sourness surrounded by the bouyant Brazilian spirit. With only two months to prepare for a new season, very soon there is a new team and a new coach. At first they lose. Then the coach orders everybody to set aside the losses and tragedy and focus on winning, and they begin to win. Then over time an awareness arises, through remaining team and staff members and the wives and others including the conspicuously grief-stricken mayor, Luciano Buligon, that the old familial, celebratory spirit is missing from the new team. And when Chapacoense returns to Medellín for a 5-game contest, they lose them all. There is sourness about remuneration. Team authorities claim they've reimbursed widows and families handsomely, only they refuse to say for how much. An association of the wives sues the club (by the end, there is a settlement reached out of court).

There is also the ugliness of the crooked LaMia Airline, whose plane crash caused all the deaths, which goes bankrupt and shuts down: it was sending out planes without additional fuel to cover any contingency, such as circling the landing field due to bad weather. This is why all these people were killed: they ran out of fuel.

There is above all sourness with replacement coach Vagner Mancini, whose arbitrariness and brutality with a particular old team player is very badly received, as is his constant efforts to erase the tragedy and move forward. There has to be a balance he lacks; the need to move on is something he handles clumsily. He fires one team member for not being "enthusiastic" enough. To do him justice, he had a very tough job. But it's no surprise that at the end of the season he's sent away and replaced by one of the former assistant coaches.

And there is the undercurrent of ugliness of the commercial, when club managers talk of pushing the team internationally, "branding," - and, obviously, profiting by the tragedy. But let's be real, here: "Futebol" is big business, and this talk isn't a surprise. Mayor Buligon, who can't talk about the team without weeping, seems to act for the viewer as a corrective. He seems to recognize that Chapacoense, for his town, is most of all about love and hope. (And selling tickets and fast food, of course.)

On the other hand the three surviving team members from the flight are models of pluck. One has lost a leg, and his victory is to be able to walk with an artificial extension. The other two struggle with recovery and surgeries and rehab with the hope of playing again. They all manage to look like young athletes in their prime, nonetheless, which is inspiring in itself. They begin to feel they're being used as a brand, a celebration of the team's new international fame, but they knew that would be coming.

When the team returns to Medellín everybody visits the site of the crash and survivors are reunited with the first responders and medical team, another emotional reliving of the event where again you get a faint glimpse of the unimaginable of experiencing such a thing.

So the team is allowed to play in the season final on an honorary basis regardless of season performance. This shakily reborn Chapacoense has had an uneven season, but there are many who recognize that simply coming out and playing has been a triumph. This was an unimaginable event, suffered communally and individually, and especially those who suffered it as direct personal loss, of whom there were many, it remains forever a life-altering event. But this movie shows a sports team. a good one, can survive almost anything.

Jeff Zimbalist's 2005 Favela Rising (SFIFF 2006) won an Emmy for its depiction of a musician in the slums of Rio, and his 2010 The Two Escobars for ESPN dealt with the early-1990's nexus of soccer and drugs. They also made Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016), the Robert Redford-produced surfer doc Momentum Generation (2018), and a TV series this year "Phenoms," about players seeking to compete in the FIFA World Cup.

Nossa Chape ("Our Chape"), 101 mins., debuted at SXSW (Austin) Mar. 2018, also May 2018 at Montclair. US theatrical release begins 1 Jun. 2018, Village East Cinema NYC. At Roxie Cinema San Francisco 15 Jun.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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