Art and the Art of Sport in 'This is Not a Ball'

This offers many individuals' stories of the game, the mechanics, the beauty, the promise and hope offered by soccer, but only a glimpse at the politics or the industry.

This is Not a Ball

Director: Vik Munoz, Juan Rendón
Cast: Vik Muniz, Neil deGrass Tyson, Marta Vieira da Silva, Skylar Tibbits, Gabriela Escalante
Rated: NR
Studio: Videocine
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-06-06 (Limited release)

"My first ball was a plastic bag," remembers Marta Vieira da Silva. When she was a child in Dois Riachos, Alagoas, Brazil, this five-time FIFA World Player of the Year would make her own ball, filling a bag with paper and closing it with tape. Her passion for the beautiful game only expanded, though she faced objections from male opponents and teammates. She remembers that she sometimes had to fight with them so "they would accept me on the team."

While Marta -- now known worldwide by her first name -- is describing her "relationship to the ball" for the documentary This is Not a Ball, she's seated in a room where the shelves behind her hold multiple trophies. For all her brilliance and success, however, she still remembers how the daunting circumstances she once faced, from poverty to misogyny. Her eyes tear up even now as she remembers her being banned from a tournament when a boys' coach threatened to withdraw his team. The 14-year-old Marta went on to play on girls' teams and then in women's leagues.

Marta's story takes up just a few minutes in the film, co-directed by Vik Munoz and Juan Rendón. Its brevity and resonance are of a piece with the film's overview structure, as it offers many individuals' stories of "the ball" -- the game, the mechanics, the beauty, the promise and hope offered by soccer (football), and only occasionally, a glimpse at the politics or the industry. If Marta might remember (briefly) the pain of being a girl who wanted to play when girls were not allowed, the majority of their interviewees provide more abstract and mostly celebratory commentary on the ways that soccer brings populations together or the pride that teams might inspire or the thrills provided by athletes at their peaks.

To this end, the film, opening 6 June in LA and streaming on Netflix starting 13 June, has Munoz planning and executing mounting another art project; that is, the assembly of 20,000 soccer balls in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico, photographed from a helicopter in order to highlight the vagaries of perspective, the ways that objects and experiences look different from different positions. This on-the-ground and in-the-air assembly involves squads of workers, to truck and lay out the balls, as well as planners and drivers, pilots and engineers and stadium maintenance staff.

The concept becomes its own sort of assembly, as the film lines up a number of individuals who are experts on balls of all sorts, from Marta to designer Marc Antonio Gallaga (who speaks to the representations of soccer in history) and FIFA World Cup ball designer Gerald Kuhtz Brazuka to developmental psychologist Edith Ackerman (who discusses children's interest in balls, as objects of pursuit and mastery) and even the currently trending Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In its chronicling of Munoz's project, This is not a Ball recalls Waste Land, Lucy Walker's 2010 documentary about Munoz's photography project in the João Jardim landfill, which also follows the artist's process, from inspiration to implementation. Unlike Walker's film, which explored the project's essential, irresolvable, and troubling dilemma -- the artist's use of garbage pickers as subjects and workers -- This is Not a Ball remains rather caught up in its own mythologizing. The ball that is not a ball because it means so much to so many, remains abstract, even as players and designers and thinks rhapsodize about its possibilities and properties.

What's missing here is a perspective on the project. Rather, the interviews string together disparate visions, while the film cuts back and forth to the project in process, the measuring, the labor, the discussion. Certainly, some of the interviewees are terrific in and of themselves: Marta is compelling, her story is evocative. And Tyson is a helpfully charismatic presence in any context, of course, here offering suggestions for the project's design. "You know what I'd do [with 10,000 balls]?" he smiles, leaning toward Munoz, who has traveled to sit with him at the Hayden Planetarium. "I'd drop them on a trampoline, all of them!" He likes the idea that balls give back energy, repaying what you do to them -- throwing or kicking -- in kind.

The effects are equally intriguing but perhaps less exuberant when Munoz visits with Geovane Lopes, a soccer coach and ex drug trafficker, who remembers the limits he faced as a child, the non-choices of dealing and joining a gang, and his good fortune and drive to get out, now to work and play with balls and local kids. "A gun can bring sadness, it can bring death," he notes. "Not a ball. A ball can bring joy." True, but the context here remains unspoken. As the film looks forward to the FIFA World Cup in Munoz's home country of Brazil, it's not going to remark the current and ongoing violence in Rio, the displacement of kids like Lopes, kids in favelas and kids in gangs.

Muniz does make a brief trip to Pakistan, where he speaks with ball stitchers, a husband and wife, Amir Sohail and Sumaira BIbi. They take pride in their labor, their family tradition in the industry, and their relationship to the ball is surely specific and crucial in this set of stories. Munoz visits Amir's home, where he observes the close quarters and the man's lack of interest in soccer, the game ("everyone" like cricket in Pakistan), but almost as soon as the film notes that the women "are not allowed to sit in the factory with men," the film cuts away, noting in passing this cultural peculiarity but not considering the poverty, the oppression, and the daily life difficulties that make stitching soccer balls a tradition handed down over generations.

Sumaira asserts that she doesn't want her children to have to do it. And the film moves on.

This moving on has to do with art, as Munoz presents it, its similarity to sport as a means to move many, even as individual relations to it -- art or sport -- might be different. The notion, like the metaphor of the ball, is at once poetic and optimistic, partial and self-serving. Art and sport can also do more.

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