Thursday, 19 December 2013

Film: Ultra Culture (and impressions of Hamburg)

I was in Germany recently for ein langes wochenende (and that's where the random inclusion of snippets in German starts and stops, I promise). I was there partly for the beer and currywurst and partly for a dose of the famously vibrant atmosphere at German football (which in turn, is at least partly due to the abundance of beer and currywurst). 

Aforementioned commodities aside, I was also there to continue the production of Ultra Culture, my film which explores the inspirations and motivations of some of Europe's most diehard football fans.

If you know football you probably know of the German club FC St. Pauli, based in Hamburg's port-side district of the same name. It's also likely that you owe your awareness of the club to the notoriety of their supporters rather than their success on the pitch. And therein lies the reason that somebody not so into football may not have heard of them: they've never won the German title and currently play in the 2nd tier among even lesser-known clubs such as Erzgebirge Aue and Ingolstadt 04. Their fans, though, are famous, and for a very good reason.

During the mid 1980's - in the pre-reunification days and around the time Boris Becker became famous for being good at tennis - fascist-inspired football hooliganism was all the rage in Germany. In response to this, recognising that football was in a dark place, St. Pauli became the first German club to ban right-wing nationalist activities inside its stadium. This sparked the beginnings of a huge cult following and average attendances rose from a couple of thousand to nearly thirty thousand (not quite over night: challenging an embedded culture takes time and stadium upgrades were necessary to house all the Lefty new-comers).

Today, St. Pauli have a huge following with over 600 supporters groups based around the world. From New York to Indonesia. Their fan base is made up of mostly politically left-leaning supporters who stand vehemently united against racism, sexism, homophobia, commercialism, and all those ugly things that continue to plague the otherwise beautiful game elsewhere. In short: they're a wonderful bunch of people.

A clear message inside the Millerntor-Stadion, home of FC St. Pauli © Ryan Chapman

I arrived in Hamburg on a bitterly cold November evening on a train from Berlin and immediately went to find the kebab shop that had been enthusiastically recommended to me by the ticket inspector. They, despite my desperately hungover state (Berlin does that to you), had seized the opportunity to practise their English and I, despite wanting to curl up against the window and wallow in self-pity, obliged. 

I've never heard falafel being described with such bountiful linguistic beauty, but let me tell you, it was entirely justified. The bad news is that if you're reading this with a trip to Hamburg in the pipeline I can't tell you where it was. Not because I'm sworn to secrecy or anything, I just can't remember (it was near a sex shop, but that really doesn't narrow it down in Hamburg). The point is, I had a delicious falafel. And satisfied, I headed off to explore the district of St. Pauli.

St. Pauli is full of those quirky little shops that have window displays so alluring you're physically unable to walk past without going inside. Think bizarrely dressed arm-less mannequins and things you look at and think they're 'retro-kitsch' without really know what 'retro-kitsch' means. 

They're the kind of shops you step inside but regret it immediately because everything that's remotely interesting is in the window - and probably not even for sale - and what you're left with can only be described as tat (which, annoyingly, you then rediscover is just a synonym for retro-kitsch anyway). 

Yeah, those shops. There's lot's of them, and I went in one. After idly browsing the contents for as little amount of time as possible that would not be deemed rude - all the time being watched by the woman at the till who wore a peacock feather in her hair - I looked at the time, made an exaggerated gesture to indicate I was late for a prior engagement, and hurried out the door.

Around the corner I was approached by a guy in his twenties who asked me if I had a minute spare to roll a dice or two. Hoping it wasn't an euphemism I reluctantly agreed and he handed them over. Bulky, wooden and painted green; each side had a word in German inscribed with golden letters. 

Suitably concerned, I rolled them on the pavement, secretly urging them to bounce awkwardly and disappear down a drain in order for me to avoid any consequences. They didn't. "You", he translated from one, waiting for the other to settle: "must learn something". He proceeded to announce that I should now go, as the dice had dictated, and do something educational.

He suggested I go to the Hamburg Harbour Museum and learn about the city's rich maritime history. I pointed out that it was Sunday and the museum was probably closed (I had no idea) and negotiated that, instead, I go to a bar and learn how satisfying it would be to sit down and drink a beer. He accepted my compromise and off he went; presumably to find other people to roll his die until they landed on 'we' and 'become friends'. 

Meanwhile, I made my way down to the harbour for that beer thinking it must be my destiny. Nothing happened. The beer was good though, thanks dice guy.

Port of Hamburg

The following day I headed to the Millerntor-Stadion armed with a plethora of questions for St. Pauli employee and fan, Sven Brox. He is head of match day security, and works closely with the ultra groups. My interview with him touched upon subjects such as the ultra groups' influence in the running of the club and the general all-encompassing sense of community. I've noticed this is more or less consistent across Germany: the relationships between football clubs and their fans are invariably rock solid. At St. Pauli, fans don't only have a say in what goes on behind the scenes, in many cases, it seems they make the final call.

To draw a comparison, the owner of English Premier League outfit Hull City has recently applied to change the name of the club to Hull Tigers in an attempt to make them more marketable, apparently. The majority of Hull supporters are against the name-change and have started a campaign group called 'City Till We Die'. In response to this, the owner hit back saying these fans "could die as soon as they want". It's an easy conclusion to make then, that this man is an enormous tw*t. Not only that, it's a sad reflection on how little fans are respected in this country and how poor the general club-fan relationship is.

In contrast, over in Germany, St. Pauli once toyed with the idea of selling the naming rights to their stadium (a move which could have generated millions of Euros in revenue). However, the fans said no, fearing it would compromise their proud identity, and so it didn't happen.

Sven Brox in interview mode © Ryan Chapman

Arriving at the Millerntor a few hours before kick-off, fans were already gathering. Inside the fan-run supporters' bar there was a raucous atmosphere and a DJ blasting out sing-along rock anthems. I could already tell this was not going to be a typical match day experience.

The game itself was worth a watch: St. Pauli emphatically brushing their visitors Energie Cottbus aside with a 3-0 victory. However, it was the ultras who put on the real show, suppling an unrelenting soundtrack comprising of reworked classics from songsmiths ranging from KC & The Sunshine Band to Bonnie Tyler. Beginning when the first players emerged from the home team's dressing room to begin their warm-up, and not ceasing until the very last victorious hero had left the field of play, they provided constant vocal encouragement. A display of support that any ultra would be approving of.

I was unable to obtain the relevant permissions to film inside the stadium, thanks to the media company who were covering the match and their unreasonable financial demands in return for the privilege. That, however, didn't stop me returning home with hours of material to be used in a way I haven't quite figured out yet. But, for as long as Ultra Culture is in its production phase I'll be looking to span the continent, watching football. So, to be honest, I'm in no great rush.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Albania: Hidden Gems & Mercedes-Benz (Part 2)

On a day that had a distinctly Sunday-like feeling - and that actually, now I think about it, was indeed a Sunday - I left Tirana on a bus bound for Berat: The City of a Thousand Windows; The City of Two Thousand Steps; The Museum City; The City of Lots of Names. 

Tucked away in a mountainous region of central Albania, Berat has none of Tirana's vibrancy, but all of the warmth. Upon arrival it was eerily quiet; only a few lonesome men shuffling down the main street and stray cats basking in the sunshine. Everything seemed to be moving in slow-motion. Even the river couldn't be bothered.

According to an Albanian legend that I have absolutely no reason to doubt, the Osum River which flows through Berat was formed by the tears of a local girl mourning the death of a giant who died fighting some other giant. Subsequently, the perished giant turned into a mountain. On top of this mountain now stands a two-and-a-half-thousand year-old castle that, though tired-looking, crumbly and everything else you'd expect an age-old castle to be, still has people residing within its walls; in homes that date back to the 13th century.

Unfortunately, here, just like most of Albania, they are lacking an effective waste disposal solution, meaning some of the ancient decaying turrets double up as rubbish tips. Down the hill, towards the more modern part of the city, are the graceful, white window-happy houses of the Ottoman era that earned Berat its City of a Thousand Windows nickname. When you think about it, a thousand windows isn't an incredible number for a city to boast, but you get the sentiment.

The preserved Ottoman-era buildings of Berat © Ryan Chapman
After a comforting dose of English football, having watched the North London Derby in a dark and dingy betting shop with more televisions than Berat has windows, I emerged into the early evening and witnessed something quite bizarre. Almost the entire population of Berat spilled out of their homes and headed to the main street to partake in the traditional xhiro, which happens every single night, at roughly a quarter of an hour before sunset.

The xhiro has it's roots in communist times, when entertainment options were somewhat limited, and so walking and talking became the most popular social activity. All they've done is come outside for fresh air, chit-chat and a bit of a wander, and there's a lovely warm atmosphere as news of the day is shared and pleasantries are exchanged with friends, family members and acquaintances. 

Kids drive pedal cars, weaving in and out of the crowds, whilst old men play chess on upturned cardboard boxes and street vendors sell flutes of pumpkin seeds to anyone who fancies a snack. Mostly, though, people are just walking back and forth, up and down the main street ad infinitum. Well, not really ad infinitum, just until bed time.

After a couple of days in Berat, lazing around the hostel, picking the sweetest of grapes off countless vines, exploring the squeaky cobbled streets (but mostly lazing around with the never ending supply of grapes) it was time to head to the coast. 

There were whispers on the traveller's not so grape-abundant grapevine of unspoilt, remote and deserted beaches better than anything else in Europe: a real backpacker's paradise. So, I eagerly packed everything I could find that I thought might be mine I boarded a bus - possibly the oldest Mercedes yet - and headed west.

A deserted beach near Dhërmi with Corfu on the horizon © Ryan Chapman
As I watched the world go by from the bus window it was easy to forget I was in Europe, passing through scenes more synonymous with South America or Asia: a bustling village market where women in traditional dress carried dead chickens by their necks; Patos-Marinza, the biggest onshore oil-field in Europe, scarring the landscape for as far as you can see in every direction, with oil-wells and other industrial eyesores; winding mountain roads where a lapse in concentration could quickly become a fatal drop. 

Five or so hours later, after a particularly long ascent, we emerged from the clouds and were welcomed by a view of Dhërmi, a village way down below by the turquoise coloured waters of the Ionian Sea.

Every so often when I travel I come across a place that makes me so immeasurably happy I wonder why on earth I would ever leave. The hostel-style campsite I found, a mile down the coast from Dhërmi, is one such place. It was indeed a backpacker's paradise and offered everything I could possibly want: a comfortable bed, hammocks strung between trees, warm-ish showers and a bar. 

I rented a roomy ready-pitched tent in a shady spot, with a foam mattress, fresh bedding and two meals per day included, all for less money per night than a pint of cider and a packet of crisps at my local pub back home. I fell asleep each night to the sound of waves lapping up against the shore and woke every morning to glorious sunshine and a salt water bath. 'Home' couldn't have felt any further away.

The sun setting into the Ionian Sea © Ryan Chapman

Days were wiled away on isolated, picture-perfect beaches, playing card games, dice games and games of run-like-a-lunatic-into-the-sea. In those moments I wanted for nothing that couldn't be fetched from a fridge. Nights began with spellbinding sunsets which gave way to spectacularly star-filled skies unlike anything I'd ever seen. It didn't take many shooting star sighting before I ran out of wishes.

Sometimes there would be no more than a handful of people to a mile of coast-line. In stark contrast, just on the horizon and within a fitter person's swimming distance of Dhërmi, is Corfu: the package holiday capital of Europe. Another world. I couldn't help but feel smug about the fact that, here I was, just several miles away, in such a relative paradise. No postcard stands, no fake designer brands, no beauty-spot turned tourist-trap, no shops selling tacky over-priced crap. Not least, no rowdy Brits disturbing the peace. Not even me.

Albania is one of Europe's last remaining frontiers of adventurous travel. Only since the early 1990's, since the fall of the communism, have foreigners been able to enter freely. It offers the backpacker a unique and challenging, yet ultimately rewarding, travel experience. Albania has emerged from its dark age and even brighter days are on the horizon. If you want to experience it before the inevitable tourism boom I suggest you go now.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Albania: Hidden Gems & Mercedes-Benz (Part 1)

Here's everything I knew about Albania before I went: I knew the capital was Tirana and that the roads were a nightmare. I knew they had a communist dictator in power for much of the 20th century and I knew they had a famously eccentric king in the 1920's called King Zog (as if I could forget a name like that!). I also knew draught beer was cheaper than bottled water. I couldn't wait to go.

I arrived overland from Macedonia on a bus from another era and was held up for two hours at the border. It took the border guards about 5 minutes to collect everyone's passport and perhaps 10 minutes to carry out the relevant checks. As far as I could tell, the rest of the time was spent having a jolly good catch up over coffee, reading the paper, finishing the crossword puzzle, and walking the dog.

Finally, our ancient bus was permitted to continue on its way along the winding mountain roads, grunting up steep inclines as it went, and negotiating the twists and turns like an old master. Twenty minutes down the road, the driver stopped for dinner at a road-side cafe. A dinner consisting of three courses, with a coffee chaser. This was my first experience of the phenomena known as Albania Time. Four hours in to the journey and we had traveled about 35 miles. Needless to say, after a long, bumpy afternoon, just as the sun was setting, I was pleased to see the urban sprawl of Tirana.

Dull communist-era buildings given technicolour makeovers in Tirana © Ryan Chapman

Tirana has the friendliness and warmth of a village contrasted by the chaotic vibrancy you'd expect from a capital city. The streets are dangerous, but not in a don't-carry-too-much-cash-in-case-you-get-mugged way, more in a watch-your-step way. You're far more likely to trip on the disastrous pavements or fall down a cover-less manhole than be a victim of violent crime. 

There are hazards and holes everywhere. The city is being modernised at an exponential rate, but there are still families living in heart-wrenching poverty right on the edge of the centre. In rows of simple tarpaulin shelters squeezed together alongside busy roads. Just a stone's throw away, in complete juxtaposition, those with money frequent the hip cafes and bars of the Blloku area of town. An entire area that, until 1991, was exclusively reserved for the dictator at the time, Enver Hoxha. No ordinary folk allowed. 

Hoxha was a devout Stalinist and ruled Albania with an iron fist from 1941 until his death in 1985. He was so communist in fact that he fell out with the Russians in the 1960's because they were too liberal. He then buddied up with Chairman Mao's China until they, much to his horror, invited President Nixon to visit Beijing. So he cut all ties and settled on being ally-less. Paranoid of over-land invasion he had hundreds of thousands of (some say as many as 700,000) igloo shaped concrete bunkers built around the country, preparing the land for a war that never came.

They are virtually impossible to destruct and litter the countryside to this day. Most have found new purposes as rubbish dumps, but some as small coffee shops or blank canvases for artists to decorate. They are Hoxha's concrete legacy and a reminder of a time when being caught listening to a foreign radio station would land you a 10 year sentence working in the chrome mines. Reminders are everywhere.

The biggest reminder of all, and the most expensive construction in communist times, is located smack-bang in the centre of Tirana: the now dilapidated concrete pyramid that was designed by Hoxha's daughter in memory of her father. 

Looking at it now, it's easy to imagine she was five years-old at the time, armed with a box of crayons and boundless scribbly enthusiasm. Perhaps surprisingly, the government's recent plans to demolish the eyesore have been met by fierce opposition from people who consider it a part of their history, rather than merely a symbol of the former regime.

What it is, actually, is Tirana's only interesting building. If there's another one, I missed it.

Tirana's controversial Pyramid © Ryan Chapman

The 1992 elections ended 47 years of communist rule in Albania and sparked a new era for the country: the era of the Mercedes-Benz. Permitted to own cars for the first time, it seems all Albanians got together and collectively opted to buy second-hand Mercs. Hoxha had liked them, and this had clearly rubbed off on the population. Not only are they a status symbol, they are also reliable and able to handle the atrocious pothole-riddled roads.

Perhaps also, maybe, there's a huge Mafia-run stolen car ring that targets Mercs in Western Europe which are then brought back to Albania and re-registered in Tirana on a 'no questions asked' basis. Like I said: maybe, just maybe

However it happened, the sheer number of Mercedes-Benz vehicles on the road struck me immediately. Every bus, every van and almost every car. Everything from robust 1970's war-horses to the more slick models of this century. According to one source, as many as 80% of all cars registered in Albania are Mercs. It's an incredible statistic. 

While foreign cars are welcomed with open arms, fast-food outlets certainly are not. It's refreshing to walk around a city and not be confronted by the same old American chains on every corner. Actually though, they're all there in spirit, just in Albanian imitation form. A restaurant called Kolonet has a McDonalds inspired yellow and red logo and offers an almost identical array of burgers and greasy fries, with just one key difference: there is table service. People in this part of the world do not like to be rushed at dinner time and the American interpretation of acceptable restaurant etiquette (eat quick, then get the hell out) does not go down well here.

My favourite clone of all is the KFC rip-off. The logo is almost identical to that of their Kentucky-fried counterparts, except they've changed the 'K' to an 'A' and called themselves Albanian Fried Chicken. It's genius! And that's not even the laziest or most blatant rip-off. Instead of Burger King and Pizza Hut Tirana is home to both Burger Hut and Pizza King. What a crazy topsy-turvy world Albanians are living in.

Albanian Fried Chicken © Ryan Chapman

Albania is full of delightful little culture shocks like this. Just little things that make you smile, or incidents that make you do a double take. Whilst enjoying some drinks with a group from the hostel in one of Blloku's bars, a young boy approached selling something that looked like it could be chewing gum from a small cardboard tray. 

After politely declining a purchase a guy I was with offered him some nuts from the bowl on our table. The boy looked at them longingly, smiled a wry smile, but then shook his head. Maybe he doesn't like nuts, we thought. Maybe he's been told not to take food from strangers, we doubted. The boy shook his head again, this time a little more enthusiastically, with his gaze still fixed upon the bowl and that's when we remembered: Albanians shake their heads to mean 'yes', and nod their heads to mean 'no'. 

Of course the boy wanted some nuts, he just considered it too impolite to help himself. "Thank you" said the boy, as we placed some nuts in his open hand, "It's ok" we replied, whilst nodding our heads, thus probably confusing him just as much as he'd initially confused us.

I liked Tirana, but I was keen to move on. I had heard on the traveler's grapevine of unspoilt, remote and deserted beaches better than anything else in Europe. True hidden gems just a handful of hours away by bus. But first I headed to the mountain town of Berat. A place where everyone's favourite hobby is officially listed as 'strolling around aimlessly'. And not even AFC have infiltrated...

To be continued.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Young Countries, Ancient History

Crossing the much disputed Serbia-Kosovo border - sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with elderly nuns, observing the antiquated rural lifestyle from the dusty window - it began to feel like I was diverting from the beaten path; the only tourist aboard the bus, venturing down the road less traveled.

From the window, Kosovo looked peaceful. And the pace of life seemed about as slow as my progress. It was hard to imagine the atrocities that plagued the area so recently.

The Kosovo War happened at around the time I began taking an interest in the world. In 1999 - following Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo region's Albanian majority - NATO intervened. They bombed Belgrade for 79 days until what was Yugoslavia reluctantly surrendered. I remember paying a lot of attention to the news at the time; not quite understanding the sensitive political situation, but being alarmed all the same.

The UN took care of the region, nursing it back to relative health, until the fully independent Republic of Kosovo was formed in 2008. Today, Kosovo is a young nation trying to find its way. For a capital city, Pristina is somewhat charmless. But, despite the crippling underemployment its population are as optimistic as they are youthful. 

In fact, Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe with a median age of just 26, almost 15 years less than the UK. As a 27 year-old it's the only European country I can go to and be older than most people. This is not something I was fond of dwelling on. On the plus side, thanks to the abundance of 20-somethings, there is a thriving bar scene.

Day time exploration was severely limited due to rain. Pristina is stark and grey, and the overcast skies leaking relentless drizzle complimented its charmlessness. It was perfect weather for visiting what was once voted the ugliest building in the world: the national library. Built in 1982 and used briefly as the Serbian Army's headquarters in the late 90's, the library (minus a whole bunch of Albanian literature destroyed by Milosevic) is a sort of architectural vision of the future one hopes is too distant to witness.

Ugly? Interesting? Kosovo's National Library

Traveling onto Ohrid, a small lakeside city in the west of Macedonia (who themselves broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991) required a bus change in Skopje, the capital city. It's a good thing I don't mind long-distance travel. Armed with enough crisps to open a tuck shop, I look out of the window for anything from two minutes to two hours, until the scenery isn't interesting anymore or the sun goes down. Sometimes, just occasionally, I fall asleep.

Whilst traveling through Montenegro a couple of years ago (not a million miles from where I am now) I was enchanted by the wonders of Kotor; a town located on the bay of the same name. I had in my mind that Ohrid would be like Kotor minus the crowds, naively assuming that because Ohrid isn't on cruise ship itineraries (logistically tricky given its lakeside location) it wouldn't be holiday-maker radars. 

I was forgetting of course that Macedonians and Albanians might like a holiday from time to time. In other words, Ohrid wasn't quite the peaceful retreat I had visualised, instead bustling with local-ish families seeking sun-kissed memories and ice cream.

Lake Ohrid © Ryan Chapman

Don't get me wrong, Ohrid is beautiful, and I spent some happy afternoons getting lost in the old town; stopping frequently for coffee at quaint little cafes overlooking the mountain-flanked lake. I also took an interest in churches, which is not something I usually deem worthy of my time. I mean, I appreciate that they're generally quite lovely to look at from the outside, but I seldom venture inside unless it's to get up a tower to take in a view. 

Given the huge historic significance of Ohrid's religious sites I was motivated to explore them. There is archaeological evidence that suggests Ohrid is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and the city was home to the continent's very first university, opened here in the 10th century. There's a strong sense of times gone by. Ohrid is also where the Cyrillic alphabet was created; in use today across 13 countries, baffling users of the Latin script for over a thousand years.

On my last full day in Ohrid I planned to hike a fair distance around the lake, but slept deep into the afternoon and woke up with a hangover that stank of tequila and consequently, I managed only a stroll. I stopped for lunch, accidentally ordered an olive-heavy salad with a sparkling water, and decided that the day could only get better from here. 

Later, down at what can only be described as a grass verge, but what is sign-posted as a 'beach', I sat myself next to a speaker vibrating with the bass of commercial dance music and somehow managed to fall asleep; dreaming of travel in a less developed land, without the hoards. Somewhere like, I don't know, Albania for example. I'll let you know how that goes...

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Film: Ultra Culture

Ultra Culture is a film about Europe's loudest and proudest football fans; known across the continent as 'ultras'.

The ultra movement was born in Italy during the 1950's. Groups of young fans began to congregate inside stadiums and they revolutionised what it meant to support a football team. They set about flying flags, banging drums and lighting hand-held signal flares, all in an attempt to create an atmosphere that would hopefully inspire their team to victory. The ideas spread across Europe and today most football clubs, in most countries, have a band of loyal ultras to call their own.

Aside from terrace choreography, ultras are often associated with football related violence. The defining line between an ultra and a hooligan is often blurred. For some, being an ultra is all about wearing your team's colours with pride and making yourself heard. For others, the passion spills over into bloodshed. This film will attempt to understand how the ultra movement has evolved differently around Europe and why violence is so ingrained within it. 

My first stop is Belgrade, capital of Serbia, and home of Red Star. Once a powerhouse of European football, Red Star Belgrade have struggled since financial instability followed the split of Yugoslavia in the 1990's. Despite a diminished standard of football and limited success, their fans have stuck by them.

Red Star's Delije in action
Red Star boast a huge fan-base that spreads across the Balkans and consists of numerous ultra groups collectively known as Delije, whose motto roughly translates as 'Red Star is life, the rest are little things'. They're a notorious bunch. I'll be talking to Bojan, a life-long fan and Belgrade resident, who will offer an insight into the motivations of Red Star's ultras.

I first met Bojan back in 2010 and accompanied him to a Europa League Qualifying match against Bratislava at the Red Star Stadium. The atmosphere was intense and unlike anything you'd witness during an all-too-sanitised match day in England, for a whole variety of reasons. It was raw and intimidating and it left a lasting impression on me.

Red Star's fans are certainly not lacking in passion, but for me, Borussia Dortmund fans (from the west of Germany) take the crown for their sheer dedication to large-scale displays of choreography. In the winter of 2011 I was at the Westfalenstadion, Dortmund's home ground, the day before they were due to host Wolfsburg in an ordinary mid-season Bundesliga clash. The stadium was already a-buzz, some 24 hours before kick-off; a group of ultras were preparing something that would be anything other than ordinary. Flares and pyrotechnics might be banned in German stadiums, but there are still plenty of factors that encourage a vibrant atmosphere. In Dortmund's case, the most important ingredient of all is the Südtribüne.

a shot from the film I made in Dortmund in support of the Football Supporters Federation's campaign for the introduction of safe-standing areas in British stadiums

The Südtribüne (South Stand) is the biggest standing terrace in Europe, accommodating 24,000 particularly noisy fans behind one goal. Collectively, they are known as the Yellow Wall. The Dortmund fans inside the stadium the night before the Wolfsburg match were putting finishing touches to an enormous banner and arranging thousands of pieces of material that would form an impressive mural when revealed in unison. What had taken an extraordinary amount of time and effort to prepare was displayed for less than a few minutes before kick-off, and then discarded of. These are the lengths ultras frequently go to in a bid to be the best, and ultimately, gain respect from other club's fans.

Dortmund will be another stop on a production that'll have me spanning Europe, meeting fans of clubs from across the continent, hearing the stories first-hand and piecing together what it means to be an ultra.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Film: Cape Town's White Elephant

On a cold, grey morning in early 2012 I received a letter that brightened up the day (I don't actually remember the weather, but it was February, and I live in England, so yeah). The letter was from my university informing me that my application for a study-visit-scholarship-thing had been successful and they were part-funding a trip to South Africa for me to make a film.

So, over the next few months I worked on pre-production whilst constantly reminding myself that this wasn't just a free holiday. I waited until England got cold again and then headed to Cape Town in October for a month of sunshine. Oh right, yeah, and filmmaking.

Cape Town Stadium

It wasn't my first time in South Africa. I was there for the FIFA World Cup back in 2010 and had taken my camera with me along with a vague intention of shooting something. I returned with a whole load of footage of football fans (some of which I used in White Elephant) and a pretty powerful interview with a girl named Nandipha. 

I had met her in the poverty-stricken township of Imizamo Yethu, near Cape Town, and she had explained how, what with all the hysteria and extravagance that surrounded the hosting of the tournament, she felt ignored and let down by her government.

I hoped one day to return to Cape Town with bigger film making ambitions; to perhaps make a film about the legacy of the World Cup. So, I was delighted when the aforementioned scholarship enabled me to do just that, and to finish what I'd started.

You'll notice that the film has nothing to do with elephants. The term white elephant refers to the stadium that was built in Cape Town especially for the tournament and what is now a severely under-utilised, and a drain of government resources. The more I researched, the more I was sure that the controversy surrounding the stadium should be the focus of the film. Therefore, the documentary questions the morality and logic of building such an expensive football arena on the doorstep of abject poverty when there were far cheaper, more popular options, all more viable in the long-term.

As I was making a film about a stadium I knew I needed plenty of shots of it. Exteriors were not a problem thanks to Signal Hill, which, although an effort to climb in the sweltering heat, provided breath-taking views of the stadium with a backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean. Interiors, however, were not so straightforward to attain, and my requests for access to the stadium were declined, meaning I had two options: purchase stock footage, or find a way in. Stock footage was too expensive, so I devised a cunning plan.

I had lined up an interview with a Cape Town Mayoral Committee Member (basically, someone quite important) with the intention of having some fun, playing investigative film-making journalist and grilling him with difficult questions. It was arranged that I'd meet him at his office in some government building in the business district, but I sent him an e-mail asking if there was any chance the interview could instead take place inside the stadium. He replied with a yes, and so I had the access I required.

As I had cynically expected, he avoided most of my questions, instead giving well-rehearsed and vague, robotic answers, so I decided not use any of the resulting footage. However, I did manage to shoot what I needed of inside the stadium whilst 'setting up' for the interview, so the day was a success. If there's one thing I've learnt through solo filmmaking on a budget is that there's usually a way to get what you want for free if you think on your feet. Luckily, the other contributors (Nandipha, Terry and Sean, to who I owe huge thanks) were all fantastic.

Imizamo Yethu © Ryan Chapman

I spent some time in the township with Nandipha, and she was kind enough to invite me into her home and show me around. It had improved a lot since the last time I was there and she was keen to show it off. As a thank you, and in an attempt to give something back to the community, I tried to help some kids with their homework. Unfortunately, all this revealed is that 13 year olds are better at algebra than me. That same afternoon, as if glutton for punishment, I also learnt they're better at football. 

During a 5-aside match, throughout which I was referred to as Rooney, my pass completion rate was terrible and my accidental hand-ball to give away the penalty that lost us the game didn't go any further to impress my teammates. In my defence, the surface was uneven and I wasn't wearing the right footwear.

The experience summed up the reason I was there quite fittingly. Cape Town Stadium lay just several miles away, but it might as well have been on the moon. I was playing football on broken concrete with kids for who football represents one of very few hopes for a better life, yet it will shatter more dreams than it can ever bestow.

I just want to say a big thank you to Kevin Wilyman, and his wife Karen, without whom I would never have met Nandipha in the first place, and wouldn't have a film. Kevin runs a volunteer company in Cape Town called Volunteers Direct and they do lots of wonderful things.