On most days in Forest Hills Park in Durham you can find at least one pickup game of soccer. The players are primarily Latino, and as dusk falls you can still hear yelling in Spanish and the thump of the ball being kicked. When the park is empty, you can see where the running and dribbling and juggling of the ball has worn the grass to dirt, and sometimes the players leave two sticks jammed into the ground—the goal, set up for next time.
On any given day, there are thousands of these informal contests being played around the world: on rooftops and salt flats, in vineyards and slums, in pastures and prisons. As Pelada's four filmmakers—three of them former star collegiate soccer players—discovered when they traveled to 25 countries in search of a pickup game, soccer's portability and universality allowed them to make joyful, human connections that supersede politics, religion or personal circumstance.
"It really is a universal passion," says co-director Gwendolyn Oxenham, former captain of the Duke women's soccer team. "When you're carrying the ball people gravitate toward you."
"It's not just about the scoring of the goals," adds Rebekah Fergusson, who was also a team captain at Duke. "What attracts people to it, is the skills, the running and dribbling of the ball."
In Brazil, the word for a pickup game is pelada, which means "naked" and suggests a stripped-down, hard-core game. And the core of Pelada the film is more than an uplifting travelogue. The personal journeys of former Notre Dame all-star Luke Boughen and Gwendolyn—they appear on camera as characters in the story while Ryan White and Fergusson work behind the scenes—are integral to the film. Their emotional terrain is also universal: When do we decide we must abandon our dreams? How do we rebound from rejection?
For Gwendolyn and Luke, it's the realization that they will not achieve their goal of a professional soccer career. However, in their travels the filmmakers' perspectives change as they encounter people whose dreams are more modest, but their love of the sport is no less.
"In a lot of ways the movie is about rejection and reinventing new dreams," Ryan says.
"Not making the national team didn't seem like a big deal anymore," Gwendolyn adds. "To see people just loving it was an example that I'm striving for."
In a Bolivian prison, inmates allow Gwendolyn and Luke inside the gates to play on their teams. In Japan, salarymen who work 12-hour days find the energy for a game afterward on the rooftop of a department store; there is no space on the ground for a field in crowded Tokyo. Within days of an attack in Jerusalem, Gwendolyn and Luke arrive to play in a tense street match between Israeli Jews and Arabs. After Luke scores a goal for the Jewish team, their opponents dispute it and ask Rebekah to play back the footage on her camera. In Kenya, a local man, George, has cleared a part of the village's garbage dump to create a soccer field.
"George and that group of guys in that slum who grew up there are so looked up to by everyone who lives there," says Ryan, who, like Gwendolyn and Rebekah, graduated from Duke with a degree in documentary studies. "They had lived through so much and they weren't broken down by it."
The same holds true in Iran, where Luke and Gwendolyn find a pickup game that is open to only men. After Luke asks if Gwendolyn can play, she does briefly, dressed in hijab. Later she plays with a group of women who, despite their movements being restricted by their clothing, clearly love the game.
But someone was watching. The four filmmakers were summoned by government security officials. "All along we were saying, 'We're not leaving this country without our footage,'" Ryan says. "What you didn't see on camera was Gwendolyn staying up all night dubbing footage."
Documentarians constantly weigh the ethical question of parachuting into a community, particularly impoverished or embattled ones, getting the story and leaving. The filmmaker's responsibility to that community can be difficult to manage.
"We knew from the beginning we weren't making an issues-driven film, but we would be in places with issues," Ryan says. "This allows them to tell a narrow part of their lives."
"There's something to be said for just telling someone's story," Luke adds. "People were saying, 'What can you do to help now?' There's not much we can do in a week, but we can tell your story. And we're still in touch with some people. The little connections we made, we can hopefully make something more tangible for them."
When you watch the pickup games in Forest Hills Park, you'll realize that Pelada is right: Soccer can connect us to one another. It can tap into our capacity for joy.
And personal ambition, we learn, is like the game: It can be about running and dribbling, not just scoring goals.