Here is an unusual film release, perfect for lockdown. Sadio Mané, star footballer with Liverpool and Senegal has produced a film about his life and his football career. It is widely available on release via either of its two partners Rakuten TV in Europe and Canal+ in Francophone Africa. In the ‘Rest of the World’ it is available on Pay Per View at low rates (less than $2.00) see https://www.made-in-senegal.com All PPV monies will go to charities.
As a film this is a conventional biopic covering the childhood and ‘football journey’ of its subject. As a form of media event it is something more complex. Most global football clubs are now international brands with their own media production outfits, including their own TV channels/stations as well as associated social media outlets and fan operations. Over the last twelve months I’ve watched many programmes from Liverpool FCTV and gained a certain kind of access to the inner life of the club and some of the players (a handful of players are used in these films – many others are only glimpsed in the background). I feared that this film about Sadio Mané would be just a feature length version of these club videos. But it is much more than that.
The production company is the Berlin-based Vertical Social Club, a company focusing on offering a whole range of media services for sports clients in terms of branding, social media etc. on a global scale. This film meant working with Sadio Mané’s commercial brand sponsor New Balance and with Arena 11 Sports Group, another German company. What Arena 11 actually does I’m not sure but it appears to involve players’ agents and contracts and is linked to the transfer market. The film is credited to Mehdi Benhadj-Djilali,
Peta Jenkin and Jermain Raffington. Peta Jenkin appears to be the director with most experience in this kind of documentary.
But enough of the institutional stuff. Does Sadio Mané have a story interesting enough to fill 72 minutes? You bet he does. Sadio was born in a village in Southern Senegal in the Casamance region. His father was an Imam in the village where subsistence farming is still the main form of employment. His father died when Sadio was seven and he was brought up within his extended family who have a collective belief in education. It’s noticeable that Mané today speaks fluent French whereas the older members of his family speak their local language Diola (or perhaps the more widely-used Wolof?). Sadio wanted to be a footballer from early childhood but the family disapproved so at 15 he made the difficult journey to the capital Dakar with a friend to contact formal football hierarchies and on his return negotiated one more year of schooling before he joined ‘Generation Foot Academy’ in Dakar from which he was eventually signed by the French Ligue 2 club Metz.
This is a remarkable story. Later in the film, Sadio recalls his father’s death was partly the result of a lack of hospital facilities locally. He also refers to the ‘rebels’ in the region who have been fighting for independence for many years and whose actions interrupted funeral arrangements for his father. When Sadio arrived in Metz aged 18, a serious injury threatened to halt his career after only a few months but he recovered from surgery and subsequently played for RB Salzburg in Austria and Southampton in the English Premier League before signing for Liverpool in 2016. Now, as a winner of the European Champion’s League, UEFA Super Cup and World Club Championship, he is one of the most valuable players in the world.
The film is shot in 1:2.35 and mostly follows its subject through three sections – his early life and early career, success with Liverpool in the Champion’s League final of 2019 and the last section covering his return to Senegal after the final in Madrid, his time with his extended family and the ultimate disappointment of Senegal’s defeat in the Africa Cup of Nations by Algeria in a penalty shoot-out in Cairo. No footage of aspects of Sadio’s childhood exist so the production used the animation company Jump to create drawn animations that I think work very well. The style reminded me of the work of French animator/director Michel Ocelot on the ‘Kirikou’ films.
Sadio Mané speaks direct to camera in a relaxed manner and in his own film he seems at ease. He seems like a private person and apart from his agent Björn Bezemer, with whom he has a close relationship, we see him mostly with his extended family, including his uncle with whom he has built a house in Dakar, and in his village back in Casamance. The film ends with him opening the school he has built and the hospital that will be completed soon. He repeats his family’s words to him about valuing education above all. The young man has done well, learning a great deal outside school. But it isn’t easy. He is under pressure, both as an important player in the national team and as a local role model in Casamance.
This is a German film so Jürgen Klopp speaks German, Sadio speaks French and his family’s local language. Much of the rest of the film is in English (or at least I think it is – I’m so used to reading subtitles that I sometimes don’t notice). The Liverpool players who appear are, I think, all non-English players. Virgil Van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum and Mo Salah speak in English but Naby Keïta, who comes from Guinea and in some ways is closest to Mané in terms of background, speaks in French. Selecting these players to comment seems logical for several reasons but they are not spelt out and I would like to have learned a little more about Sadio’s interaction with the wider Liverpool FC community. But then, I’m a fan and the film does include the shot above in which Sadio stands next to a quote by Bill Shankly, so I can’t complain.
This is an enjoyable and well-produced German-UK co-production focused on events in the life of Bert Trautmann, a German POW in Lancashire in the closing stages of the Second World War who became a famous goalkeeper at Manchester City with a career spanning 15 years from 1949. It’s not a full biopic of Bert Trautmann nor is it a generic sports drama. Instead it’s an unusual romance with both the war (and its aftermath) and sport as major elements. It’s also a largely ‘true story’, but with significant omissions and possible misrepresentations. But these changes don’t negate a strong narrative. Unfortunately, the independent UK distributor Parkland Entertainment has been unable to exploit the film fully with a release on 84 screens. The result is that despite audience support and some strong reviews, it’s actually been quite difficult to find the film in UK cinemas. Wherever it has played, audience responses have been good so perhaps it will succeed on DVD and VOD? The film received a wider release, I think, in Germany in March 2019, but despite making No 10 in the chart only lasted a couple of weeks making around $600,000. In the UK it had made £300,000 after six weeks.
My personal attachment to the story is that the first televised football match that I watched was the 1956 Cup Final in which Manchester City beat Birmingham City. It became known as ‘the Trautmann final’ and what happened to Bert Trautmann on that day is an important element of the film’s narrative. However, the wider story of Trautmann’s first twenty years in the UK features many other important elements. The story, written by the director Marcus H Rosenmüller with Nicholas J. Schofield and producer Robert Marciniak takes the main points of Trautmann’s story and smooths them into a satisfying romantic drama in which Bert Trautmann emerges as a heroic figure in the UK. There is rather more in the full true story. It seems to have taken some time for the German producers to find UK partners and put the funding together. Like several other recent UK productions, the whole UK shoot seems to have been based in the North of Ireland with Belfast and its hinterland standing in for Lancashire. Effective CGI recreates both the former Manchester City ground at Maine Road and the old Wembley stadium. A German shoot based in München provides some wartime scenes and flashback material. Cinematography by Daniel Gottschalk and the production design, art direction and costume design make a good stab at representing the late 1940s/early 1950s. The supporting cast is led by well-known character actors such as John Henshaw, Dervla Kirwan and Gary Lewis which gives it heft, but the film stands or falls on its pairing of David Kross as Trautmann and Freya Mavor as Margaret, the young woman he marries. Both are excellent.
Rather than outline the narrative I think it is useful to spell out some of the interesting facts in Bert Trautmann’s story in order to explain the film’s appeal. Trautmann was a tall and handsome man with blue eyes and fair hair. He volunteered for the paratroopers aged 17, won an Iron Cross and survived the war, being captured and escaping several times before becoming a POW in early 1945. He was a good footballer and played as a POW alongside farm work. When professional football re-started after 1945, crowds were enormous and unlike today, big city clubs attracted a mainly male working-class audience from the local area. Manchester City had a significant section of potential support from the large local Jewish community. It is a measure of Trautmann’s ability as a player that he did eventually win over the fans despite the doubts about his wartime exploits. The obvious issue for the filmmakers was the question of how to deal with the ‘Good German’ – i.e. how to humanise the character and to avoid creating either a saintly figure or one who may appear duplicitous. Two other recent films come to mind, The Aftermath (UK-Germany 2019) and Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015). Both are relevant here in different ways. In The Keeper, there are two strategies. The first is to deflect the questions about Trautmann’s potential Nazi past by including more obvious Nazi characters amongst the POWs and by creating what seems like the exaggerated figure of the British sergeant in charge of the camp’s work details and who displays no sense of any tolerance or understanding whatsoever. This character also appears in the other films but I wonder if Rosenmüller found it difficult to direct the acting performance by Harry Melling? The other strategy here is to put the onus of defending Bert onto Margaret as his wife. Freya Mavor does very well with what I think is a difficult role. It would be interesting to compare Margaret as the younger, working-class/lower middle-class woman in the same position as the older, upper middle-class Rachel (played by Keira Knightley) in The Aftermath.
I’m not going to spoil the last section of the narrative covering the Cup Final and its immediate aftermath. All I’ll say is that there is tragedy that leavens the expected feelgood factor. The film finishes with titles that tell us what happened to Bert Trautmann as a footballer (he played his last City game in 1964). But apart from telling us that Margaret died in 1980 and Bert died in 2013, it says nothing more about the years after 1964. This is understandable in the attempt to streamline the story and there is enough incident in both the sports story and the romance to satisfy audiences. (If you want to know more about this remarkable man see this biography page.)
I recognised David Kross but couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. Later I realised he was the lead in the excellent youth picture Tough Enough (Knallhart, Germany 2006) when he would have been 15. I was pleased also to see Freya Mavor. I was most aware of her from Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013) but researching this film I discovered that she has experience in French film and theatre as well as in Scottish cinema. I wonder if she speaks German as well? The Keeper was dubbed into German for its release there in 2018. The film’s credits are long at the end but it’s worth sitting through them to hear a Noel Gallagher song (he and his brother are massive Man City fans).
The last Ken Loach film before this one (It’s a Free World, 2007) was released first on television in the UK and it dealt with the new brutalism of capitalism with its exploitation of migrant labour. For me it was the least enjoyable of the Loach team’s work in recent years. Looking for Eric is a return to mainstream Loach territory and a very enjoyable movie for a cinema visit. However, I guess that in the circumstances it is perhaps a little too ‘comfortable’ – although it has its moments in exposing current political issues. Perhaps it is the ‘happy ending’ and the football focus that has led some critics to see the film as a departure, a mainstream breakout film. I don’t think it’s either.
If you know Loach, I think that the two other films Looking for Eric most resembles are Raining Stones (1993) and My Name is Joe (1998). Raining Stones, written by the late and very great Jim Allen, is also set in Manchester with another well-meaning but hopeless working-class man this time caught in a spiral of financial doom. It is also one of the bleakest and funniest films to come out of the UK. My Name is Joe is a romance (one of Paul Laverty’s early scripts for Loach) bringing together a man seemingly trapped by his demons with a sensible woman from social services and set in Glasgow. If you’ve seen either of these films, you’ll not be surprised by what happens in Eric. Laverty has become a skilled scriptwriter and the whole thing works very well – although audiences will be puzzled by some of the relationships in Postman Eric’s dysfunctional family. (I’m grateful for an IMDB poster for explaining at least one plot point.)
Looking for Eric features a Manchester postman (brilliantly played by Steve Evets) who is helped out of his crisis of self-confidence by the appearance of the ex-Manchester United footballer Eric Cantona (playing himself – who could possibly impersonate him?). This is woven into the plot quite cleverly so that we understand why ‘little Eric’ might imagine himself talking to his idol. Don’t believe all those stories about this being a big departure for Loach. In 45 years he’s used all sorts of surrealist touches – remember the on-screen football score when the PE teacher pretends to be Bobby Charlton in Kes?
Cantona was famous in the UK for both his fantastic football skills and his assured way of dealing with the media via a series of wonderfully gnomic utterances – don’t leave the cinema before the end of the credits or you will miss Cantona’s most famous press conference. The film isn’t really about football, even if there are a few minutes of Cantona magic in video clips of his famous goals. Watching United usually gives me the same pleasure as root canal work at the dentist’s, but even I would admit that Cantona was a genius on the football field. Now he’s an actor and he brought the initial idea to Loach and Laverty. Cantona the alter ego offers sensible advice to Eric, both in terms of his relationship with his ex-wife and his problems with his stepsons. His most important advice is that Eric must rely on his teammates – the other posties who do care about him. What we see in the film is the ‘saving’ of little Eric when he takes the advice offered. The warmth of feeling and the humour in the film is there in most Loach-Laverty films, but in this case there does seem to be something that might be called a happy ending. However, along the way we do get a firm and convincing message about how solidarity and collective action is the way to solve problems.
I must mention Stephanie Bishop’s performance as Eric’s ex-wife, Lily. Loach’s films always feature inspired casting and Kathleen Crawford, based in Glasgow, has worked as casting director on the last few Loach features. She’s done a great job. All the cast are Mancunians, or at least Lancastrians, as far as I can work out. Stephanie Bishop has no previous credits but I thought she was terrific. As Loach says on the film’s website, casting an actor like John Henshaw opens up so many possibilities because he can switch from serious drama to broad comedy in a flash. He matches the performances of Ricky Tomlinson in previous films. He becomes the team leader of the posties – most of whom are played by comedians from local Manchester clubs. Overall, the policy of ‘local casting’ means that we do believe that all of this could happen in a ‘real’ community.
Only one negative came from the screening – the print. You can never tell with digital prints whether the fault was in the original footage, the conversion to digital or the projection itself and the computer, but several sequences were presented in a way that made me feel like I was watching the film through a pair of old tights. Since Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is usually one of the pluses for a Loach film, this was a real disappointment. Still, it couldn’t prevent my enjoyment. If you have a choice, try to see the analogue print.
As usual, this Ken Loach film opened earlier and wider in France where it will end up earning considerably more than the £1 million it has so far earned in the UK.