FCearth Q&A: Loaded Questions with Terry Kegel, I Speak Soccer filmmaker

We have talked in the past about super-traveling teacher-turned-filmmaker Terry Kegel and his well-received soccer travel odyssey film I Speak Soccer.  Please check out his site at I Speak Soccer; word is the film is phenomenal and he is donating 100% of profits to Right to Play.

Terry graciously answered a LOT of questions for us in his unique story-telling voice.  He can still smell the orange peels and muddy cleats of youth soccer in Washington, got burned out on competitive soccer late in his college career but was saved by pickup soccer (here here!), and doesn't consider himself a filmmaker. He also some incredible tales from his enviable soccer-playing journey. Read on!

FCearth: What is your soccer background? Are you a lifelong soccer player and fan, and do you still play?

Terry Kegel: I’ve been playing soccer for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a soccer family across the street from a field, so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d fall in love with the game. My parents were immigrants, so compared to my friends growing up in traditional American households I got a lot more exposure to soccer than baseball or football. My brother is three years older than me and was an awesome player. I spent so much of my early childhood on the sidelines at his games, learning from his every move. As soon as I was old enough I joined my first team: the Tornadoes. I lived for Saturday game days: orange slices, muddy cleats, the whole thing. Those were the best soccer years of my life. At U-13 I joined a select team and started playing in the Washington state premier leagues, through U-18. I had some success in high school and went on to play all four years at a D-III college. I excelled on the field, winning all-conference honors, but the competitive game had left a bad taste in my mouth. Somewhere along the way the joy of playing had been muddled by arrogance and politics. That’s not the game I loved and lived and breathed as a kid. I found myself ambivalent about the sport, though the pure pleasure of touching the ball always brought me back. And that’s when pickup saved me. Playing pickup reawakened that childish love of soccer and sharing that with others all over the world has opened my eyes to the power of this game. So yes, I’m still playing.

What are your favorite club and/or national teams?

I usually root for my home team; problem is I’ve had a lot of homes! At the moment, it’s the Seattle Sounders. 

What is the background/genesis of I Speak Soccer?

Where do I start? The roots of this film go deep. I feel like it’s been in the making my whole life. Since childhood my two greatest passions have been soccer and traveling. So these two ingredients have been in the pot for a while and with each trip or with each game they’ve been stirred together a little more. It’s the synthesis of soccer and traveling that cooked up the inspiration for this story.

But it was only when I first lived abroad that the two really came together. As a sophomore in college, I spent a semester studying at a university in France. A couple weeks after arriving, I was still struggling to find my way in a new culture, a new language. I went for a run one day and happened upon a pickup game in the corner of a city park. I wasn’t looking for soccer, but actually I think subconsciously I was. I mean I was looking for something familiar, some “in”, some way of feeling home in this new place. As soon as I saw that pickup game I knew I had found my home. I went back every day for the next six months. The guys I played with were mostly immigrants also and in pickup we found a sense of community. It was such a natural, fun way of making friends and getting to know each other’s cultures. That’s when the power of pickup really hit me.

Then the more I traveled outside the US, the more I realized just how universal that pickup experience is. I was especially curious about the diversity of the game. Free from standardized rules and referees, pickup is creative and reflective of the influence of environment and culture. I would stare at world maps and flip through travel books, wondering about all the unique dialects of this sport. During my senior year of college I applied for a Watson fellowship to travel around the world playing and studying pickup soccer. I didn’t get it, but the process of writing that application was crucial in turning this dream into a reality. It made me realize that I wanted this to be more than some far-fetched idea; this was too important to me to brush off. Money or not, I was going. And I went.

What can you say about the process of producing and filming the movie? Did it go as you expected? Any lessons for a would-be documentary maker?

I don’t think of myself as a filmmaker. Though my film has started to get some attention from the industry, I stubbornly maintain an outsider’s perspective. So it’s weird when aspiring filmmakers ask me for advice. I will give you advice, however, as a teacher. There’s a story inside all of us. You are the only you and your experience on this earth is truly special. The world awaits your story. Sharing it is your right and your privilege.

Just remember it’s a journey. Too many filmmakers write the credits before they even feel the story in their heart. They’re motivated by a finished product, any finished product, that wins them fame or money. I think that’s backwards. Expression may come through your voice, your movement, your pen, or your camera – that doesn’t matter. The process is your reward. What’s important is the adventure of discovering and reflecting, interacting and editing, learning and teaching.

Your adventure will yield its own lessons, but here are mine: Do what you love. Share what you love. And as others do the same, most importantly, listen.

Is there a standout moment from your travels or filming, something that is the most memorable or that really informed you about your subject?

So many! I’ll give you two for now. There’s a scene in the film of a player in Nigeria playing with one shoe. When I was filming that a friend of mine was standing next to me behind the camera. He saw me focus in on the guy’s feet and he said, “when you show this in your country, your people will laugh.” He seemed embarrassed. I said “no, they will be inspired.” He wasn’t convinced. It was only then that I fully realized my responsibility in telling this story. Everyone I played with and filmed welcomed me with such open arms. They were so generous and trusting in sharing their game, their home, and their lives. My first goal in all this is to represent the truth and the beauty of these people. That’s much harder than you can imagine. Editing my four years of experience with these people into an 84 minute movie that communicates their depth to an audience who knows little more about these places besides TV stereotypes, that’s not easy. No wonder it took me two years to edit!

There were also many fun times playing. Some people who watch my movie might think that I showed up with my camera from day one. Actually I was a player and a friend to these people long before I took out my camera. I usually spent at least the first 8 months only playing. My best memories come from those first few days joining the group. This was especially entertaining in Brazil. As much as I tried to blend in with the locals, my American accent gave me away in the time it took me to ask, “can I play?” They scoffed. “An American soccer player?!” In true Brazilian style, they proceeded to welcome and tease me at the same time. “This is the ball, you kick it,” they explained laughing...“Here, why don’t you start in goal!”...“Are you sure you’ve played before? You must be thinking of the American ‘football’,” they joked... One guy even bet my friend 40 bucks that I’d embarrass myself. Now, granted I’m no all star player, but I did think they were being a bit harsh and I was anxious to show them that I’ve at least played before. 10 seconds into the game the ball came to me. I trapped it and played a simple through ball...silence... “O Americano joga direitinho!” “The American can play!” Talk about low expectations! But that’s the beauty of cross-cultural interaction through play. We have these expectations and we shouldn’t ignore them; rather, we should play them out. We’re fascinated by cultural differences, but so often we’re scared to talk about them. In a pickup game that awkwardness melts away and we come together in such an honest way.

What compels you about soccer in America, and/or the progress soccer has made in this country? (especially with your new perspective on what soccer means in other cultures?)

American youth players are so fortunate to have arguably the greatest infrastructure for soccer development in place at the youth level. But I think if they only know soccer for select teams, ODP, and those rare college scholarships, not only is that not a sustainable interest in soccer, it’s also a view that misses out on the beauty and potential of the game.

I got an email the other day from a mother who had seen the film with her son. She said her son, who plays on a select team, asked her to walk him over to the local park to join a pickup game where a friend of his plays with his Latino friends. They didn’t speak English but they welcomed him right in. She said the film really changed his perspective on soccer. This is what excites me about soccer in America. I want to help open up the eyes of our youth players to the depth of soccer. I want to help them wake up to the potential of this sport. I want them to realize that they speak the most well-known language on earth, and that represents so much potential for connecting with people across other barriers.

This is a movie about soccer, but more than that, it’s about travel. I think of travel as interaction across borders. Those borders may be political borders halfway across the world. Or they may be the less talked-about borders of race and class within your hometown. Soccer transcends that. I think we have a responsibility to teach our kids more than how to pass the ball. We need to teach them to be interested in knowing that person receiving their pass. In a country that really struggles to make these connections across differences both internationally and domestically, soccer represents such amazing potential.

 What do you think is the #1 thing needed for soccer’s continued success in this country? (ex. national team success, MLS success, more vocal leaders, more colorful athletes, etc.)

 If you mean professional success, I think it would take more money, more big names in the MLS, more media high-ups with a soft spot for soccer, and a few lucky bounces for the US team in the World Cup. Or we could finally just give up on winning over baseball fans and go grassroots: merge the infrastructure and opportunities of youth soccer with the incredible playing potential and passion of the immigrant and low-income communities.

 What is your favorite soccer media (book/ movie/ tv show/etc.)?

 Ladybugs of course...Just kidding! I’ll go with Futebol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way by Alex Bellos. It’s a brilliant example of cultural ethnography through soccer.

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