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GÖTEBORG 2021

Ronnie Sandahl • Director of Tigers

“Football is a carnival of toxic masculinity. And in a way, that's fantastic!”

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- We talked to the Swedish director about his latest film, now showing in Göteborg’s Nordic Competition

Ronnie Sandahl • Director of Tigers
(© Sandra Myhrberg)

Inspired by one Martin Bengtsson, a former footballer signed by Inter Milan as a teenager, in the Göteborg-screened Tigers [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ronnie Sandahl
film profile
]
, Ronnie Sandahl ventures off the pitch – only to find out that's where the real competition is. Especially if you believe, just like The Cure, that boys don't cry.

Cineuropa: We are all aware of how football transfers work, but hearing a boy say that “they sold him” seems so absurd. Presumably, it hasn't really changed compared to Martin's actual experience?
Ronnie Sandahl:
I modernised it a bit. He went through it all in 2004, but I set the film in some sort of timeless modernity, although the commercialisation of football has only increased. I am interested in football, I know quite a bit about it, and I have been fascinated by the absurdity of that world. As you said, and I am happy you wanted to talk about that specific line, there are quite a few moments when the absurdity of its rules is exposed. It's a world where you can be sold, owned and bought. So my question within the film is as follows: what happens to the human value when the monetary value is rising?

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They are so young when they get scouted. It's an odd practice, really – to invest in a kid and make it his whole life, without any guarantees that it will ever go any further.
They count on losses, and the losses are huge. Let's say that in one Primavera team [Italian youth football competition], there is one person who makes it. That's good. Two? Great. But there are 20 more of them. Most go and find different paths, but it's not just about success and failure, because some of the “successful” ones also end up going down in that system. Martin was regarded as one of the biggest talents in the world. No one understood what was happening until he tried to kill himself. Sometimes, I see football as a funhouse-type mirror of our society. It reflects what is happening when it comes to capitalism or masculinity, but it's ten times worse. I am surprised there haven't been any good films about it.

Maybe because you just want to see the dream? In an environment like this, people tend to tolerate abuse. Is it easier to ask for help now?
I think it's different for different clubs as to whether they use any psychological help or not. Whether you come from Sweden or Nigeria, the loneliness and the vulnerability that you bring to this team where nobody wants to see you succeed is brutal. I am not even sure what they should do about it, as it is an extremely competitive world. For me, it wasn't about pointing fingers. I don't really make that judgement; I just think it's fascinating. Behind the scenes of what we see every week on TV, there are so many stories that we never hear about.

He doesn't really have a father figure in the film; nobody tells him to “man up”. What was your way in when portraying male vulnerability?
I am interested in masculinity. What happens to a human when he is not allowed to show weakness? That person will crack, and these cracks interest me as a filmmaker. Football is a carnival of toxic masculinity. And in a way, that's fantastic! It might have been much harder to examine that if I had come from the outside, but I paid my dues in the boys' world. I am from a working-class town in Sweden – if you show that you are weak, you are dead.

There is also something about that single-minded obsession: Martin is so clear that this is what he wants, but he needs something entirely different. The real Martin is still a hard-working guy: he is the same as a writer as he used to be as a footballer. But he found another way. It's dangerous for you as a teenager to put your whole identity into one thing, and on top of that, you are worth all this money. It fucks up people's heads.

We are fed this narrative that if you want something, you have to give it your all. Even your espresso-sipping “villain” tells him he needs to have this hunger.
And maybe he is right? For me, this trilogy, which started with Borg/McEnroe [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, which I wrote, and will be followed by Perfect, set in the world of gymnastics, with Olivia Wilde attached to direct, deals with the idea that you have this weakness or a void that could make you special. Martin's hunger is, of course, lethal, but it could also make him successful. I have this back hole in me, too; I am trying to feed it by making films, telling stories, hoping someone will like them. It's the same for footballers. Is it healthy? No. Will it make them stars? Yeah, some of them. Others will go down. A “normal” sports movie would end where our midpoint is. So often, they are reduced to winning and losing, and to me that's not important. This one is about winning or losing your life. That's what's at stake.

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