THE CULT DEN: AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR DAVE LaMATTINA / by chad walker

A while ago Tony Cross reviewed We Must Go, a documentary about the Egyptian football teams failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. Here is the original review WE MUST GO, and now Tony had the chance to sit with Dave LaMattina, the director...

At what point did you decide that this was a story that you thought was worth telling? 

Almost immediately. To give you a little bit of back-story I was sitting in the stadium in Rustenburg, South Africa when the US lost to Ghana. At that point I was actually texting with Chad, who I directed the film with, and I was saying, 'man, we really need to make a doc about the world cup, it's just a great experience, it would be really fun for the two of us to be in Brazil in 2014 just from a pure fun standpoint'. So at that point we started looking for stories around the world cup and soon thereafter Bob Bradley gets a job in Egypt and we think, well, there's our story. So pretty much right away we started getting in contact with an agent and saying this is something we're really interested in doing and we turned out to be right; it was a pretty fascinating story.

The one thing I found interesting was that although Bob's kind of the – I don't even think the centre is the right word of it, but because you're following Bob, but there are a lot of stories intertwined with his and then with the Egyptian political situation within the film that make it a bit different to a lot of sports documentaries that I've seen. So, for example, you've got Aboutrika and Selah, the footballers, you've got Dahlia and Yasmine and Karim's story. You've got Bob Bradley's story, his wife, and then you've got the political situation: the riot at the football match and the consequences of that. It seems to be a lot of different stories you've pulled together. Once you'd decided to follow Bob when did you decide to, and how did you pick the other stories?

We originally thought, hey, this is going to be a cool fish of water American in Egypt and we really quickly realised that it would be a huge disservice to the Egyptian people, the Egyptian story and Egyptian national team to just make about, 'oh, look at this American stage you're coming into to great work in Egypt.' so we looked for other ways to capture the storylines around the Egyptian teams so obviously you have the guy like Aboutrika who is so amazing, he's so hard to get on camera. I'm so happy we did because obviously he tells the story of what the Egyptian team has been for years and he's this great figure. Then you have a guy like Selah who Trika had taken under his wing so those two were actually pretty obvious. Then, Port Said happens and you try to figure out, okay, well, how can we capture what happened in Port Said and so for that we looked for both someone lost someone in Port Said and that was where we found Dahlia and Yasmine, just to see what their journey was like in the same two years that the qualify was going on. Also we wanted to find an ultra who could talk about what their beliefs are and how they'd been affected by Port Said, so also try to give them a face so they're more than just, as they say in the film, more than just hooliganism gone wrong. So that led us to those people. It was tough to find that; the ultras are very reluctant to speak on camera so that took a little bit of time. Dahlia and Yasmine; that was something that happened early, thankfully, in the process, we were able to meet with them so that gave us some time to develop a nice relationship with them. We started down that path thinking that Dahlia would be the voice there for us and then Yasmine was there and we interviewed her the first time and she really emerged as this character full of hope for us. The two of them are remarkable, but she's a remarkable young lady.

I have to say I did get a bit, for a middle aged Englishman I did get a bit teary at a couple of points! Their story is very moving and the way they've dealt with it. The fact that they also lost the father as well shortly afterwards is… 

Heartbreaking.

Yes. I think that one of the interesting things I got from the film: in some ways it's not – and forgive me for casting aspersions on the USA here for a second – in a way it's the story of somebody who lost and got asked to leave as a result of not winning a key game and it strikes me that the stories of losers isn't always a particularly good American story. Americans seem to like winners, but the thing is the defeat isn't what the story's about. It's more about the journey – am I going along the right lines there or am I just…?

No, I think you're absolutely right. When we signed on for this film, of course you think it's going to be the classic American underdog winner story and it would have been completely inspirational, we would be in Brazil right now with the team. I don't know if it's just the obstanance in us or if it's the American in us, but even when they are in Ghana and they draw Ghana in the draw there, we're thinking, oh, this is great, this is a great storyline, you know, Bob and the US loss to Ghana 2010. This is going to be an amazing story of personal retribution over Ghana and of course they lose. Even we go into the second leg thinking, oh, well, there's a chance they could come back and this will be the greatest sports story ever and then they don't, they win and they have a respectable victory. It was a little bit different for us, but I think in a lot of ways it's not a fairy tale so you just capture it as it goes. It would have been interesting for us to see where the film went in terms of – Egypt changes every day and if they had won and even just given us another six months or so of filming the changes that would go on in Egypt at that point would be really interesting and I would be curious to see how that changed the tenor of the film and whether or not – if they had won, I wonder, I don't know. Like someone says that if Egypt had won the government would have hijacked that and made it this big flag waving moment for the country and I don't know that that would have been a good thing ironically.

One of the great myths, I always think, is when people in sporting administration positions say that politics and sport don't mix, when, actually, politics and sport are always mixing. '

Absolutely.
 

 

Again, one of the things I got from the film was how much the football fans and the ultras were tied in with the protests and how much the politics and the football were so intertwined with each other. Did you find that yourself? Was it that tied up?

Absolutely. I'll be honest, Chad and I are not, I don't think we can consider ourselves political filmmakers. I like to think that we have an awareness of what's going on around us, but it's not certainly like we went to Egypt really knowing much more than the fact that, oh, there was a revolution in 2011 that toppled Mubarak. We didn't really know much beyond that, we didn't know what went into that or what was really happening since that and the reason we came to have an understanding of what was happening there is because it is so, so tied to the football. You just can't separate the two things, it's impossible so we realised that to properly tell the story we needed to understand the politics of the place. We came to the film very much as football fans and fans of Bob Bradley so I think, I hope, our journey was the same as a lot of our audience will undergo. I imagine a lot of our audience comes to this film, particularly in the states, as fans of Bob and the US national team and are interested to see what he does. We hope that they leave with a little bit more of an understanding of what's going on in Egypt and it's so cut and dried and it's not good versus bad there, just to have a little bit better understanding of what's going on there.

I think the fact that the different stories were of different… like Yasmine and Dahlia are Christians, Aboutriker and Selah are Muslims, Bob Bradley is an American, his religion doesn't matter, in a different country. I think all these strands all help to show us a bigger picture of what's going on.

Yes, that was it for me too. When we met Dahlia and Yasmine and realised the Christian experience, honestly that's something that I had never thought of before. I never really thought of Egypt as having, as a minority, but having a solid population of Coptic Christians.

You didn't really make a big deal out of it. You can work it out for yourself that that's what they are.

Right, exactly. We talked to people, including Bob, about their faith. It's one of those films that the issues are so big and you have to – it was a challenge for us, quite honestly, to sit down and figure out what information does the viewer need in order to understand the situation and what extra information would just confuse the topic and lose that underlying soccer, or football, theme here. So yes, I'm glad that you picked up that and other people have as well, that there are Christians living in a Muslim country. It was exciting for us and we didn't seek out Christians, but it was cool that they happened to be a Christian family because it gives a bigger picture of it's not just a Muslim country. All the women aren't walking round in burkas which my guess is that a lot of people here in the states would think they are. On the news they would be.

Exactly. I think there are countries where people have expectations of what they're like based on films and not necessarily of experience. Britain's role and history with Egypt is a long and colonial one [laughs] so sometimes we think we know more about these countries than we actually do, but we are equally as…

Yes, and I think that's normal. Unless you have a reason to know more about a certain country then you are just sticking to what you see on the news and what you see on the news in Egypt, at least here in the States, it's protests and riots and men with beards and that's what you see. Then you go over to Egypt, you're in Cairo and, obviously it's a modern city and yes, you have your Muslim brotherhood population and you have your women that are in burkas, but then you have your Christians and you have your Atheists, and there's just a big population that you just don't really see. All you see here is the Muslim brotherhood and you see the military and there's a lot of people there that are not with either of those groups so it was cool for us just from a life experience perspective to go and see that and that was something we really tried to reflect in the film.

You see that with Yasmine's comment when she says, 'I didn't want either of them to win' and then her mum says, 'oo, be careful' which I think is quite a key moment, like be careful what you're saying.

Yes, exactly.

The thing that came across really well with Bob Bradley was the fact that the Egyptians had a lot of respect for him because he stayed when things looked like they were going badly in terms of the political environment. He didn't immediately pack his bags and decided he didn't want to stay. He decided that he was going to work with the team and stay and I think that's part of the story that comes across.

Yes, he's a remarkable guy and we did not know Bob as anything more than the US coach when we went and first met him. To be honest I thought he wouldn't be very open because I was always under the impression, and it's probably an unfair impression, but I was always under the impression that he was, not necessarily standoffish with the media here in the States, but not interested in the media here in the States. I think he really keeps everything in the team. To go over and to see him work and to see him and Lindsay stay through all of this, like everyone says a lot of people would leave, he's a remarkable guy. He was doing that and was really - you don't necessarily know what you're getting into when you're making a film like this and to have him as the personality in the film we felt pretty lucky that he was the type of guy that he is. And he still is. He still will email us and ask about the family and everything. He's just a good person and we really thought that he had the makeup to take – it's a very [unclear word 0:14:38.2] squad obviously, to take these guys and get them through this. I think he had a small victory. I don't know that Selah would be playing for Chelsea if another guy had been coaching Egypt, I honestly don't think he would be; that he would a) be discovered or b) would be given that sort of professional sensibility that is necessary in a player for one of the top clubs in the world.

I think one of the things that I did – I watch a lot of football and I see a lot of footballers and football managers interviewed by various people and a lot of the time it's very hard to get them to say anything more than a sound-bite or something neutral because they don't want to offend anybody or they don't want to say the wrong thing. I was very impressed with the way that Aboutrika and Selah actually were quite open with you about a lot of things. The scene when Aboutrika talked about the deaths in Port Said and the two people that died in his arms effectively. That's quite a tough to get a footballer to talk about, I imagine.

Yes. He is remarkable and I think there's a couple of things in play there. I think because we're not big reporters and the medium's a little bit different and it's not going to be in the press tomorrow, I think that helped people feel a little bit more comfortable with us and we were with them a lot so I think that helped as well. I think Trika is a really special guy. Despite the fact that he doesn't do a lot of press, I think when he does do press he chooses carefully because he wants his story to be told. Not necessarily his story, but the story of the fans, he wants their memories to live on. When we finally got him, it took months to get him, I think he was ready to talk about that stuff and then he takes Selah under his wing and teaches Selah the same type of thing. I don't know if you noticed, we certainly noticed it in person, but when he's talking about the loss to Ghana Selah is tearing up and that was a few weeks after that match. They were really open with us and I think again, being foreign and having a little bit longer burn before the film came out really helped us in that case.

The weird thing about football is that there's very few good football dramas. There's a few films where football is involved, but the good ones are the ones where it's often on the periphery like Gregory's Girl or whatever, but it makes for very good and interesting documentaries. Do you think there's a reason for that?

I think in our case there's just so much on the line. Even if you have a story about an underdog team that isn't going through political conflict or whatever, if the US makes a run to the world cup, and don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they will, I'll be happy if they get out of their group, but if you are with real people and you're seeing them. So if you're with the United States team and you're with Clint Dempsey and you're home with his family and you start to get, oh he's a good dad or whatever and you're just rooting for him as a person and then you have this natural – the main thing for a doc is that you have a natural climax: they win or they don't. If you invest in those characters as people and you can find real people that you're invested in then you're going to be rooting for them. We've done a short doc about a footballer named Kei Kamara who played Major League Soccer and then went out on loan to Norwich City and is now playing for Borough, but he is a former refugee from Sierra Leone who had to move to the United States and leave his family behind and everything as a child. So that's all obviously very dramatic and then you just want to see him win so when he gets loaned to Norwich and scores a big goal against Everton it's like a massive victory. I think it's all in personalities for docs. If you can find a good character and then you can put that character in a moment where you're not making it up, it's just a moment of natural climax, it's probably better than a drama where you have… I'm a big fan if the us football series Friday Night Lights and Friday Night Lights,Ii don't know if you've seen it but it goes on for four or five seasons and I love it, but there's a big game almost in every season and it's either they win or they lose. At some point you just realise there is writing and if you're not writing it and it's real I think that's probably where you get a doc success over a drama in this area.

Did you have anything you wanted to say that I might have missed out on?

Obviously the film is out now on, I believe it's out on iTunes there in the UK and it's available everywhere. It's a new process for us; we had done this film strictly as a visual release just to get out in time for the world cup so it's been interesting. It's been doing really well here on iTunes, in and out of the top ten on the doc best sellers which is exciting to see. It's cool that you're interested honestly. We didn't know how much interest there would be outside of States and Egypt so it's cool to get…