Film Festival Soccer’s Own Little Berlinale

The 11mm International Film Festival in Berlin has evolved from an alternative event in a courtyard cinema into a five-day celebration of soccer on the silver screen. Handelsblatt Global Edition took a peek over the weekend.

This article was originally published on March 23, 2015, and republished without changes in February 2018.

The carpet leading up to the movie theater isn’t red but green and is actually real turf.

The prominent visitors included former German national team player Arne Friedrich, VfL Wolfsburg defender Marcel Schäfer and Abraham Klein, a Fifa referee from Israel.

And there’s been no shortage of testosterone among the viewers in the 400-seat historic Babylon theater on the backside of Alexander Platz in Berlin.

The 12th annual 11mm International Film Festival is a one-of-a-kind bonanza in the German capital – a big-screen competition set up for and about soccer. It ends tonight with a ceremony for best film to be selected by the more than 4,000 people attending the event.

For all the dissimilarities between 11mm and the much larger, more prestigious Berlinale in February, the two Berlin film festivals share a passion for cultural and political art-house movies, according festival co-director Andreas Leimbach-Niaz.

There’s no shortage of testosterone among the viewers in the 400-seat historic Babylon theater on the backside of Alexander Platz in Berlin.

“We have something in common in those areas,” Mr. Leimbach-Niaz told Handelsblatt Global Edition, “and the fact that we also have an international focus.”

This year’s line-up is proof of that. Of the more than 50 feature-length and short movies being screened, more than two-thirds are international productions.

Viewers vote – from one to 11 – on the best film, and a strong contender is “Next Goal Wins,” a documentary about the national team of the tiny Pacific island state of American Samoa. The film is as hilarious as it is moving, offering a candid look inside a team firmly anchored at the bottom of rankings compiled by Fifa, soccer’s global governing body.


Video: "Next Goal Wins" official trailer.

The film opens with footage of the American Samoa national team being annihilated 31-0 by Australia. It’s the highest loss ever in a Fifa competiton. Coming into the 2011 World Cup qualifiers, the team has a 30-game losing streak and has been outscored by 229-12. It doesn’t get any worse.

Thomas Rongen is hired to help American Samoa avoid self-destruction. He is the only coach to respond to Fifa’s request for expert support. And he is everything his team isn’t: A chain-smoking, foulmouthed Dutchmen who was a successful professional soccer player in Europe before coaching the United States’ under-20 team to three World Cup finals and winning the Major League Soccer title with D.C. United in 1999.

Not only that, Mr. Rongen is an atheist in a devotedly religious country. And for coach who has heard and told his share of guys’ locker-room jokes, he has on his team a transgender man, Jonny Saelua, the first such player to compete on a World Cup stage. Mr. Saelua on the pitch and Ms. Saelue off it is part of the fa’afafine, a group of biological males who identify themselves as a third sex in Polynesian culture.

Without giving away the ending, the team scores more than just goals.

A few political films stand out at this year’s event. “We Are Muluccans” is about a motorbike taxi driver who, with the help of soccer, wants to save the children in his village, Tulehu, from the religious conflict between Muslims and Christians in Maluku in the late 1990s. Sani Tawainelle, a former player and now coach, forms a multi-religious soccer team.

“Istanbul United” tells a story of how fans of the Turkish capital’s three main clubs put aside their deeply bitter rivalries to mount a joint protest against the country’s premier, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The Other Chelsea – A Story From Donetsk” is a documentary about a team funded by the billionaire owner Rinat Akhmetov that is struggling to stay focused on soccer amid a war at its front steps and compete in Europe’s Championships League.

And there’s an entire series dedicated to Jews in soccer.

The 11mm festival also likes to pit bigger-name filmmakers, like Spain’s Alex de la Iglisia, against lesser-known directors, even amateurs in a few cases.

The festival kicked off with a film about Barcelona star Lionel Messi by Mr. Igsia, who also produced the cult film “Perdita Durango.” The film, which has already run in major theaters in Spain, made its German premiere in Berlin.

At the other end of the spectrum is “Meidericher Vizemeister,” an amateur film made by three fans of MSV Duisburg, a tradition-steeped club in the industrial Ruhr area. The film focuses on a group of boys who began playing soccer together on the streets in their Meiderich neighborhood before becoming professionals. They went on in the early 1960s to become the club’s most successful team club ever.

“We really had no idea how to make a film,” Matthias Knorr, one of the amateur filmmakers, told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “There was plenty of trial and error but we managed in the end to capture the essence of the story, which is about a tightly-knit team built on friendship with an incredible determination to win.”

Günter Preuss, the team captain at the time and a contributor to the movie, agrees. “We could see that these guys were pretty new at making a movie but none of us players had really spent much time in front of cameras, so we just worked together and ironed out the bugs as best we could,” Mr. Preuss said in an interview.

The Babylon cinema shows a silent film with live music every Saturday night for free.


Following a Berlinale tradition, the soccer film festival this year has offered a special program, 11 minimeter, to school children and teachers to view youth soccer movies and discuss them with experts.

The 11mm festival was launched in 2004 initially as a project sponsored by the British Council, featuring four films on British soccer. It is now sponsored by the cultural foundation of the German football association, the DFB, with additional backing from several companies and organizations including Volkswagen, Sky Television and Germany’s Bundesliga.

Over the years, the event has served as a springboard for several filmmakers, including Aljoscha Pause. His movie “Tom meets Zizou – Not a Midsummer Night’s Dream” premiered at 11mm in 2011, went on to run in German theaters and was later aired on national television.

The documentary is about the former Bundesliga professional, Thomas Broich. It traces his career in Germany, which began promisingly but ended after numerous professional and personal setbacks with a transfer to the Australian club Brisbane Road.

Sadly, professional soccer has many Thomas Broichs.

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. He has played tennis with two former professional soccer players featured in the movie "Fortunas Legenden" at 11mm and can testify that they remain as competitive as ever regardless of the sport. To contact the author: [email protected]