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.