SBS Film speaks to the co-founder of a unique film festival that unites lovers of the round ball game. 
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14 May 2012 - 5:26 PM  UPDATED 14 May 2012 - 5:26 PM

When SBS Film spoke to Greg Lalas about his soccer-themed film event, Kicking + Screening (K+S, to its followers), the drama of the final day of the 2011-12 English Premier League season was a statistical possibility. But nobody could have envisioned the final moments of what some have called the most exciting end to a top-flight domestic competition in the history of the sport. So, it was serendipity of the highest order that Lalas secured May 17 as the date for the launch of the Liverpool leg of their celebration of football on film. It's fair to say that every Englishman's passion for The World Game will be at fever pitch in the wake of Sergio Aguero's last-gasp, season-winning goal for Roberto Mancini's Manchester City.

“The festival is really about the passion and culture of the game. The actual football is merely manifestation of that passion,” said Lalas, an ex-Major League Soccer player and now editor-in-chief of the American League's website, MLSsoccer.com. “I think, at times, this is something the players and clubs and sponsors forget – that this game goes much beyond the white lines and even beyond the stands. It's in the streets, in the backyards, in the blood, as one filmmaker put it.”

Lalas co-founded the screening series with partner Rachel Markus in April 2009, with the concept being conceived, oddly enough, in a New York restaurant. Markus and Lalas met on a blind-date which could have gone bad. According to Lalas, Markus was not sold on his idea at first. “But I told her, 'Look, if we have 20 friends over to our apartment and show a soccer film, we can call it a soccer film festival,'” he recalled. “In the end, we called in some favours from friends who own bars and they let us show films. It was very organic, very fun. And everyone was so appreciative of it. The next year, we moved into a real cinema.”

The fourth instalment of the New York leg unfolds in late June, where it's now firmly entrenched in The Big Apple's film festival calendar. It was inevitable that Lalas and Markus would take the festival to the birthplace of the game; the inaugural London screenings were held last year, with the 2012 edition slated for late September. “I knew a guy named Grant Best, who directs EPL matches for Sky,” Lalas explained. “Rachel called Tom Watt, who was on EastEnders and now does stuff for Arsenal TV. They convinced several people from the football community – a small cinema chain in North London, Arsenal, Bobby Moore Fund, even the FA – to lend some kind of support. It was brilliant.”

The programming to-date has focused primarily on documentaries. This week's three-day event in Liverpool will feature: Juan Pablo Roubio's Argentina Fútbol Club, a thrilling account of the regional rivalry that explodes every time South American mega-clubs Boca Juniors and River Plate meet in the game they call 'Superclásico'; Paul Crowder and John Dower's Once in a Lifetime (pictured), an account of the rise and fall of America's first superstars of soccer, the New York Cosmos; and Swedish filmmakers Martin Jönsson's and Carl Pontus Hjorthén's The Last Proletarians of Football, which charts the game-changing playbook of Sven-Göran Eriksson's 1980s giants IFK Göteborg and his adherence to the principles of social reformation known as 'The Swedish Model'.

Lalas said he would happily screen fictionalised films but titles realistic enough to appease the hardcore fans that K+S attracts are not easy to come by. “Green Street Hooligans did a good job of showing the power and pace and thrill of a match being seen a pitch-level. Escape to Victory did well to capture some of the little motions of the game,” he admitted, recalling that John Huston's often-maligned POW-soccer drama starring Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone closed the London 2011 event. “The hard part is that most actors aren't good enough on the pitch to do anything convincingly enough. I guess that's why most soccer films are documentaries that leave the playing to the real players and the acting to the real actors.”

The growth of Kicking + Screening since its inception has been remarkable by film festival standards, but given the game is played in all corners of the world, not particularly surprising. (Frankly, it's astonishing it took until 2009). In addition to the annual NYC screenings, events have been held Amsterdam and Kerala, India, and in the soccer-mad US cities of Washington DC, Houston and North Adams, Massachusetts. Following the Liverpool season, the next satellite event will launch September 13 in Portland, Oregon, home of the Portland Timbers. (“They sell out every single game and have a massive, organised supporters' group called the Timbers Army, as good as anything in Europe,” says Lalas). Australia is also a goal, with Lalas acknowledging he's had submissions from Australian documentarians and saying that the K+S team would be thrilled to present the works on their home soil.

Lalas is ultimately happy to take on the workload if it means spreading the fervour of the sport. “That's what it's really all about: getting the community together,” he says. The power of the game to unite was evident in last December's Kerala event, perhaps the highlight of Lalas' time in charge. “500 people showed up for an outdoor screening! It was incredible. Because footy fans are the same everywhere: they love the game, they love the camaraderie, they love the art.”