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More Than Just A Game
Genre Sport
Year: 2007
 
Review:

More Than Just A Game is a docudrama that relays the events and circumstances that led to the inauguration of Makana Football Association, an internal soccer league on Robben Island. The “Alcatraz of Africa” is famous for detaining political figures such as Nelson Mandela, but no one knows the other side of the story. These prisoners were locked away under inhuman conditions during the “Apart Hate” regime, but they were able to establish a united front in the midst of the struggle. Their ideals sentenced them to imprisonment on the most detached part of South Africa, but this is not a film about throwing away the key. These Robben Island inmates were able to cast their party affiliations, race and ethnicity aside to vest their hope and strength in the game of football.

Anant Singh brings More Than Just A Game to screen with solid direction from Junaid Ahmed and a decent compilation script from Tom Eaton. The narrative is told through a series of interviews with several ex-inmates: Mark Shinners, Anthony Suze, Lizo Sitoto, Sedick Isaacs and Marcus Solomon, while a dramatised story unfolds between the talking head clips. The saga kicks off with a South African cast featuring Presley Chweneyagae, who piloted Gavin Hood’s Tsosti, Wright Ngubane from Duma and Tshepo Maseko of local soap drama Isidingo.

More Than Just A Game combines several concurrent themes with relative ease. Firstly, Robben Island is notorious for its connection with Nelson Mandela and his “Long Walk to Freedom”. The establishment is an infamous landmark for its role in the era of Apartheid and this fact alone could hold a viewer’s attention. Secondly, the game of soccer is probably the world’s most popular sport. Football has been at the centre of prison movies like Mean Machine, the UK’s take on The Longest Yard. Then South Africa is ramping up to the 2010 World Cup, so a soccer heritage piece punting FIFA and our nation would make for excellent publicity. Thirdly, negative attitudes influenced by crime statistics and political machinations in South Africa make the perfect playing conditions for More Than Just A Game’s positive reflection on a alienating era.

The background is multi-faceted and what would normally be an uplifting coming-of-age Hollywood glory movie is transformed into something meaningful and triumphant. The documentary weaves its way between storytelling and action. The talking heads reinforce the visuals with their recollections of wardens, fellow inmates and their fight for football. The production is more concerned with getting out onto the playing field than settling into the clichés of prison life. The film wouldn’t have the same buoyancy if the violence had been emphasised, but sets the scene with the majority of the abusive language, racism and violence falling in the first half.

More Than Just A Game’s success is that it combines sporting glory with personal redemption. It’s like The Shawshank Redemption, Mean Machine and Cry Freedom all rolled into one. The docudrama rolls from historical documentary to political prison drama to sports feature. The rolling genres keep the film entertaining, and the beautiful views from Robben Island help to break the monotony of prison uniforms and amateur soccer displays. The story is the most important element of the film and the performances, cinematography and testimonies work around this perspective.

The production is distinctly South African with a mixture of Afrikaans, Xhosa and English to stir the script. The editing keeps a good pace but is punctuated by interview clips, which keep the viewer on the surface of things. This keeps the ball in the air, but doesn’t allow full immersion into the prison conditions and environment. The characters are well-cast and juxtaposed with their real-life personalties, which adds charm but undermines the performances. The music is fitting and if anything there could have been more quarry harmonies. The stars are their for their acting ability more than their sporting prowess, and More Than Just A Game keeps the action low-key avoiding any wire stunt performances akin to Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer.

More Than Just A Game has all the right ingredients. However, the decision to interrupt the drama with short “commentaries” was distracting. The film-makers tried to strike a balance between documentary and drama, but failed to really drive the point home in either department. The story is strong enough to carry through, but it feels like a soft version of the real history. One gets into the spirit of the soccer subculture, but it feels superficial like they’re only scratching on the surface. The rose-tinted lens takes strong opposition and conflict between the wardens and prisoners and washes things over with a local football derby finish.

What starts as an insightful voyage of enlightenment finishes off with a “live-for-the-weekends” account of prison sentences. The hardship is represented by breaking rocks and a lack of privileges with a softer tone than many boarding school movies. One can understand that the focus is on the light at the end of the tunnel, but it paints a story based on ideals rather than history. The themes and situations have been sanitised for a PG audience. We learn that some guards committed suicide with a prison guard wandering off screen only to hear a gunshot some seconds later. The message seems to be saying that the struggle to play soccer mirrored what was happening in the rest of South Africa. This is a fair reflection, but one can’t help but feel that the allure of the impending World Cup, FIFA’s recent acknowledgement and the New South Africa spirit has driven a wedge between objectivity and this portrait of prison life.

More Than Just A Game highlights the brighter side of Robben Island’s prison, but makes as though the wardens were the only ones suffering. The production is competent from the script to the finished product, but the notions are romantic and mirror the climate of the 2000s more than the 1960s. One gets the impression that this is an initial impressions and highlights package of Robben Island. Despite the soft focus, the docudrama is still insightful, inspiring, entertaining and refreshingly optimistic. It’s a foot in the right direction for South African films, which usually home in on the big negatives of crime, racism, poverty and Apartheid. The film may be suffering from repression, but it’s coming straight from the heart of the very people who witnessed the power of the people being put to action.

The bottom line: Sanitary.

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