Interview with Pablo de la Chica, director of “The Other Kids”(2016)
There are stories worth telling and making known. Stories that transmit, help and serve to raise awareness and give a greater perspective of a reality that seems distant, but that is happening right now. This is the little story of a boy, Reagan, who had a dream: to be a football player. A dream that in Uganda is transformed into something much bigger.
This is the story that Pablo de la Chica tells us in The Other Kids . A story that was not the initial idea, as he explains in this interview, but as soon as he landed on that landfill in front of the Nelson Mandela National Stadium and saw the real story, the one that was happening at that moment, his perspective changed. How it changes when you finish this little story where football is the only redoubt of freedom for these boys.
Few audiovisual pieces can better capture and identify the values of football. Values that are intact when a child plays with the ball. The Other Kids by Spanish director Pablo de la Chica shows the other side of football: the authentic and more emotional side.
How did the idea of creating “The Other Kids” come about?
Pablo de la Chica: I’ve been playing football since I was a kid. I’ve played with international players like Fernando Torres and Juan Mata. My love for football was total, but I tore the cruciate ligaments in my knee at the age of 15 and had to give it up. At that moment another door opened for me. My other world was the cinema, I wanted to be an actor, so I spent seven years acting in Spain and ended up making the leap to the other side of the pond. Life took me to Toronto.
I spent a few years in Toronto, but football came back into my life. I always carry a notebook where I write things down wherever I am in the world. Then I opened one of those notebooks that a great friend of mine gave me and the first entry I had from 2007 was a clipping from the newspaper Marca that showed some children from the war who had gone to Camp Nou. It was the preview of Papira’s story. I’ve always been very linked to these social causes and I thought that this was bringing together my two worlds: football and cinema. I didn’t think twice and went back to Madrid.
I landed in Spain, spoke to my agent to tell him that I’m going to start directing, set up a production company and ask for a loan from the bank to pay for it. I set off like a kamikaze to find Papira in Uganda.
The first story in The Other Kids was Papira.
I travel days before my team. I don’t like to go to hotels, I like to stay in places close to where the character is going to be and where the story is going to take place and I found the dump. Such a powerful image because from there you could see the Ugandan National football stadium. Right there my assistant tells me that there is a soccer team that is excelling at the dump. I go and I see a dwarf kid with a Fernando Torres t-shirt walking away from everyone with broken boots. It was Reagan.
“It was a dumping ground where children disappeared. A child trafficking area… The smell of burning toxic plastic…”
How do you know how to catch the “important” things that might catch your attention in an environment where everything would catch your attention?
On an artistic level they always tell us: you have to be attentive. You can’t be fixated on a story, you have to look around because there may be more interesting things. Juanma, our editor, told me to pay attention because things are going to happen that you have to be very quick to see and it all depends on you.
Wherever you put the camera it will work. I trusted my team’s judgment. Reagan at five years old was a standout. It was unbelievable. He dribbled very well. He controlled, looked and decided well. He was cheeky playing football and he didn’t know he was being watched. I see him wearing Torres’ shirt, we start talking about his idol and that’s when The Other Kids begins.
Reagan appears on one level saying “here I am”. I tell you my story. My mother abandons me. I sleep in the dump. The next day I meet Anthony, because he wasn’t at that first game, and he was an amazing character to me. I started to talk to him about what I was going to shoot and of course, everybody knew Papila, because that selection of kids had already been famous.
It was all connected, but I was more interested in Reagan. That’s when I began to understand the importance of football as a vehicle for studying. Because that scholarship is all-encompassing. If he doesn’t have it, not only does he not study, he may not eat or may only have one meal a day. That’s why football was everything to them.
How did they experience football: from the passion of the sport or why did they realise how important it was for their future?
They lived it first from passion at levels that were exorbitant. I have slept in that house with them and I personally was quite touched. Suddenly you were talking to a guy at night and he told you that he didn’t understand why the Spanish national team sometimes played a double pivot with Busquets and Xavi and you looked at them as if you didn’t know how to read, but…
And suddenly many of those nights we would sometimes go to watch the games of the day. Of course, they didn’t have electricity so we would go and find an area where they would put the games on TVs and suddenly you would see everyone watching several games at the same time. It was incredible, they watched everything… Italian, Austrian and Spanish league. It didn’t matter. The point was to watch football.
And well, when the national teams, Spain or Real Madrid were playing, it was a bit of a gap. It was THE event. They had the same feeling of watching a constant Champions League final. I felt it was the grassroots football that I had learnt from a young age – that passion for football. The mikasa ball, the earthen field. Balls that no one is going to finish, the ball that bounces unevenly, that knee injury. That feeling of going back to my childhood and my love of football.
I sort of distanced myself from football. I used to live for football and I ended up hating it. But when I saw them, I realized what I was living… these kids, in a way, are very similar to the feeling I had when I was a child, but even more superior. They really love him.
Is it safe to say you’ve connected with football again?
Let’s just say I reconnected with my childhood side and this feeling of loving football. They had all the real values of football as a sport. I thought, “This is the truth. This is football. It’s not the big leagues. They are loving football, they are enjoying it, they are discussing football and understanding that this same sport has united them and that this same passion could solve their lives, in a certain way, to be able to graduate from school thanks to the scholarships….
For them, football is water, not just because it feeds them, but because it gives them life.
I understood that there was a lot of history there. He called Juanma, my editor, and I said I’m going to change the whole story.
Then I tell the first story. I include finding yourself, that first scholarship. That first game, I go back to Madrid and I say… I already have the documentary. Then comes all the real big problems you encounter when you get back to Europe: a co-producer who steals your money from a TV station, a lawsuit… there was a moment when the film was on the verge of faltering.
So I’m with Juanma in Madrid and Anthony calls me saying that they have been robbed of their scholarships and have been left in the street. It’s the middle of the movie.
Then, of course, I tell Juanma. We were quiet for a day and a half and I thought, “I have a commitment. I have a real commitment to history. I’m involved and I told myself I have to tell this”. I had all the fights in the world. I asked all my friends for money and took another loan from the bank, all to go back to Uganda and shoot the final part of the film.
We were a guerrilla team out to give it our all and it worked out well.”
In the documentary there are several footballers like Fernando Torres, Juan Mata… How was the process of having several top players in the documentary?
Under no circumstances was I going to let any footballer come to clean up his image or give a single penny. That was a mandatory condition in the project, because they were getting close. And I don’t do any free advertising because I have to safeguard the product to the extreme to tell the story.
When the project was ready, there was Sergio Ramos, Fernando Torres, Yaya Toure? Didier Drogba can’t because he is in Montreal but he tries to help… and when you see that there is movement, the project is started, x people start to appear to enter. There I was categorical and said no: history is history. It would have been easier for sales but I had a commitment.
They didn’t care about Reagan’s history, they just came for the image wash.
We have always wanted to take care of The Other Kids . It talks from a concrete point of view about the importance of grassroots football and education. They are kids who have a dream and that is to get ahead. I mean, there was never the intention of “I’m going to sell and I’m going to sell the Reagan story.”
The kids there only have football as one of the few educational and future opportunities. How important are football schools in Africa and how do they work?
Talking about football schools in Africa is very complex. Basically it is that if the school is recognized because it is a school that wins titles, all parents will want to take their child there, there are wealthier parents who can afford to pay the fee. Then it levels out, the school grows and becomesan educational business. Better facilities, can sleep more children, can be mixed, can grow…
That’s why investing in making your football team work is so important.
I’ m still paying for Reagan’s education and I’ve been paying for several kids’ scholarships for years. They have very little money and if a club with money comes in, it means nothing to the team and the results can be spectacular.
Of course, European clubs have much more to gain than to lose with minimal investment. Do many clubs have a base, school or scouts working in these areas?
An example would be Chelsea, Olympique Marseille or Olympique Lyon. There are also several clubs that have agreements to sign as Chelsea that comes because there are African investors and apart is the English colonial issue. The English league has a lot more African players than the rest becausethe Premiership has shown that investing a lot in Africa pays off and, moreover, people support them more than any other league.
There in Africa you ask someone: what team are you from? And they answer you: From Atlético Madrid, okay fine but from Atlético Madrid and Arsenal. I mean, they point out to you… I support this team and this team. They make it clear. They are not from two teams. They have their English club and then the other club. A funny anecdote that happened to me, I remember a guy who told me“I’m Udinese” and of course I must have seen a Udinese match in UEFA or in some summary but I have not seen a match of Udinese in my life. And you’re left in a state of shock.
Africa would be a very dangerous superpower in everything, because they have astronomical levels of players.
There’s a really interesting issue in Africa with football shirts . Counterfeit football shirts mark social status. There you will see shirts from Barcelona, the Spanish national team, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester… some from Juve, some from Atletico Madrid but… will never be Real Madrid’s. Because the copy of the Madrid shirt is so expensive that making a counterfeit shirt means that you are in another social status. They look at you as if you were a “pijo”, saving all the distances.
But the t-shirt issue goes beyond that and can be a life saver. In the pre-production when I go to look for Papila I save us from being shot by the military when they stop us at a checkpoint on the border with Sudan in an Al Qaeda zone because I was wearing a Spanish T-shirt. Days ago he had done an interview with the Daily Monitor about Spanish grassroots football. Luckily they are football mad, they live by and for football because it’s one of the only tools they can get out of it. And we were saved by it.
Football there is almost a matter of life and death. How important is football for African children?
I believe that football as a sport is a vehicle for escape. Articles 31 and 32 of the human rights of the child talk about a child needing to play to be a child. The moment the child does not have recreation and does not play, he ceases to be a child and passes into adulthood. If you psychologically eliminate a child’s play, he becomes a broken toy when he gets older. The only way, the only way out and the only sport that exists there is running or football.
There is nothing else. So for them football is their moment. I felt like, talking about it with Papila, that we felt like playing football ourselves. You also stay with this, with this real grassroots football. That feeling from before when you had to call your mum to come upstairs and stop playing football.
This is the real thing. This is the football of yesteryear. Football is now a pure and simple market for me. And the essence of playing, of having a good time, of team values, of all those things that football really has, are being diluted so quickly that in a way the big names and players of the beautiful game are to blame.
Do you think the players are aware of the impact they have?
Very few, but very few. And the ones that are few are because they have such a hard core family that they have no problem telling him he’s an asshole when he acts badly. It’s also important that they’ve had a real taste of grassroots football. And that’s when you realize.
First I think they live in a bubble which is logical because they are elite athletes, but I think they need to touch the ground. There are many players who are unaware of their actions and their involvement in these issues. I think they are very badly advised.
It’s very difficult to find people as good as Juan Mata. It also happened to us with Torres. It’s true that I hadn’t seen Torres for a long time but what he did at Chelsea showed me that he was a different kind of guy. We arrived at Chelsea’s sports complex and the press officer told us “you have ten minutes” in the press room and Torres came out with his coffee and said no, I’m in charge and we’re going to do better on the pitch.
From a ten-minute interview, he spent three hours with us. We were talking, he offered us whatever we needed and asked us when we wanted to go. I made a bet with him that he would return to Atletico at that time. He hasn’t paid for the food yet. But you stay, you start talking to them and they comply. And when you’re going to release call you and gets against Atletico Madrid because he needs to leave before training to go to the cinema to see the movie I can understand that the club tries to cut the wings a little bit to the players, but for a social good not.
Besides Torres, for me Juan Mata and Didier Drogba are examples. I’d also like to do a project with Samuel Eto’o because he’s a clear example of a million very different things. It’s a real football map, but you meet very few people like them. That’s why I always say the big difference for me between Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is that they both come from neighbourhoods where they come from but there is one who remembers it every day.
I think it’s a little bit about touching ground, but to touch ground you depend on your family, your manager, your circle of friends. There are many factors and values.
The question is, what are the values of footballers?“You earn millions, you are watched by millions of people every day, if you are an example it is a grain of sand so that everything on a human level goes better“. The clear example is Jesse Owens, the athlete who raised his fist in Munich. Or what Marcus Rashford is doing in England at the moment.
If players were more socially involved, it would make a huge difference.
Finally we would like to ask, it’s been several years since the premiere of“The Other Kids“, how is Reagan doing?
He is at the time of adolescence. It is necessary to have the left hand with him not to fall in his picaresque. I paid for two years of school for him and he didn’t go. And I keep paying and talking to the manager. He is in the rebellious and protesting stage. Reagan left the team he was on and went to another one. He’s fine and still playing but the only one who looks like he’s going to break out in football is Akena. Akena had it clear and wanted to play at all costs. Reagan is a rebel. My current commitment to him is to get him to graduate from school.
Have you changed his life or has he changed your life?
He has changed my life more than I have changed his. He is free to do as he pleases. At the end of the day you have the responsibility that you will be filming with a child and that this can be used to help them.
Reagan is still doing well, I hope she continues to study.