Review: 'This is Not a Ball' -- An Artful But Facile Look at Soccer
"I used to carry a gun, now I carry a ball."
This poignant expression, said by a former drug trafficker turned soccer coach in Brazil, sets the tone for the type of documentary that This is Not a Ball seemingly strived to be: an all encompassing look at the power of play.
Featuring cameos from the likes of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brazlian soccer star Marta and the team behind the official World Cup ball, the film is not short on experts or subject matter. Directed by Juan Rendón and contemporary artist Vik Muniz, who served as the subject of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Waste Land, This is Not a Ball attempts to decipher the importance of balls as related to science, art and society.
While the beginning of the film is promising enough, it seems that problems arise when Muniz forcefully attempts to inject himself as a key player. While he is from Brazil, Muniz confesses to never having much of a talent for soccer. This certainly is no barrier to making a documentary about the sport, but his presence serves as more of a distraction rather than an enhancer during interviews with subjects. There are multiple instances in the film in which interviewees are seen talking to Vik on Skype despite there being a camera crew on location filming them doing so.
The footage and editing are undeniably gorgeous, and there is certainly an engaging story to be told within this documentary. Unfortunately, it seems that there's too little focus to determine what that story is. We're told about impoverished children who treasure their soccer balls, which are shown to be made of discarded materials such a plastic bags and twine. Then we are then taken to an art installation that Muniz has designed at the legendary Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, where he's using 10,000 soccer balls to form a gigantic image. Muniz and Juan Rendón play up the difficult time constraints and logistics of pulling off the installation, but one can't help but think about how low-stakes this situation is compared to the lives of the many impoverished people shown in the film.
The documentary also suffers from painfully selective memory. An expert discusses the important role that Egyptian soccer fans played in the country's revolution without making any mention of the 2012 stadium riot between rival fans that claimed the lives of 74 people. It briefly visits Pakistan, where 40 percent of the world's soccer balls are produced, and talks to workers sewing away in cramped environments without acknowledging -- or even asking about -- the visibly uncomfortable conditions. In Sierra Leone, we hear the stories of former child soldiers who are now amputees connected through their love of soccer -- a subject undoubtedly deserving of its own feature length doc. But each time we delve into a story worth telling, we quickly return to Muniz's art installation, and the film loses steam.
Muniz and Rendón put so much focus on trying to tell every story that they fail to do any single one of them justice. The main takeaway from this documentary is that a soccer ball is in fact not that interesting, but the way it can make a person feel most definitely is. The film will open on June 6 in LA and will begin streaming on Netflix on June 13.