Sunday, November 9, 2014

Baby Ruth Villarama's "Little Azkals" - Little Film, Big Heart

"The only way to be better," shares Phil Younghusband, Philippine Azkals' most prominent personality, "is to play with better players." Younghusband, an iconic figure in the sports, was invited by the team that gathers 22 under-11 boys from all over the nation to take them to Loughborough in Leicestershire, United Kingdom. This cultural partnership with the British Council and the British Embassy ambitiously endeavors to help train - for three weeks - the young upstarts right in the home of football, the world's most popular sport.

The undertaking isn't a walk in the park, uprooting kids to a place so far removed from their environment, some of whom still sleep beside their parents. Babysitting these boys can be a tactical nightmare. The team is composed of five kids from Mindanao (Cagayan de Oro, South Cotabato, Davao, Bukidnon and Dipolog), nine from the Visayas (Cebu, Negros Occidental, Iloilo, and Dumaguete), and eight from Luzon (Laguna and NCR).

There's Agiel of Negros Occidental, Niel of Malabon, Charles of Cebu, Shane of Malabon, Jil of Iloilo, Kano of Koronadal, Michael of Muntinlupa, Nicolai of Laguna, and 16 other kids from all over the land. Trouble starts early on when a typographical error almost bars one child from getting to his Emirates flight to London. 

For the upstarts, England is a virtual fantasy land, far from the gaze and nurturing care of their parents. Their only guardians are their coaches. Their new environment is cold and food has "no taste". Loughborough, for the next three weeks, becomes home. The place hosts football lessons the way they play it in England, and allows them matches against British teams, testing their skill against a race who lives and breathes the sport. Styled like a boot camp, the children sleeps at 10 PM and wakes up at 6 AM. Their days start with football exercises with day visits to good ole London, visiting Wembley to watch World Cup qualifying games (UK vs. Moldova); English Premiere League games (Albion vs Swansea); and Manchester United's turf. To some quarters, these provide a surreal experience.

On their first game, the "Little Azkals" lost against Quorn JFC 2-3, a game that discombobulated some of the players. In fact, Kano Rojo of Koronadal scores "for" the rival team. If this is quite telling, it's because the young Azkals played against a team that has been playing "together" for the last 5 years. They, however, are a new team, hailing from different provincial leagues. On their next game, they win an impressive 4:1 against their opponent. How's that for kids who have trouble playing their offsides and even have intermittent crying spells because they miss home?

Baby Ruth Villarama's "little film" wears a "big heart" so it's hard not to fall for our little hopefuls. In a country where "basketball" is the grassroot sport, "Little Azkals" shares tidbits of inspiration by taking baby steps towards an ambitious goal - the Under-17 FIFA World Cup of 2019. By that time, many of these young pups would have turned 16 and wiser in ways of the game.


Daddy Rob visits the Little Azkals.
There are interesting moments worth mentioning: Like Phil Younghusband referencing his then-girlfriend Angel Locsin to get the children to listen: "Angel threw me a party last night. Do your girl friends do the same?" Rob Gier, co-captain of Philippine Azkals and centre back of Ascot United, also drops by to help coach the children during one of their matches, and - oh, what a gorgeous sight, but that's just me. ;)

In another scene, the children use an inordinate amount of salt to put flavor to their pasta. "Walang lasa," says one kid. We are a nation known to favor extreme taste; sweet or sour, and almost nothing in between. Or when one of the kids throw almost half his room to the laundry bag. Then there are the difficult wake up calls. Or when their English Coach  Stuart noticed the language barrier so he says in jest, "I'd have to speak 20x slower." Ouch. During an earlier pep talk, the coach also highlights the most important thing about the sport. That more than trying to get better in the game, you have to "enjoy yourself first". After all, games are supposed to be fun, and so is playing them.

The film, endearing though it may be, is rough around the edges and feels random than anything ground breaking. Camera work, for example, fails to capture winning goals on cam. While that may not be the point of this documentary, essential moments like that render a sense of urgency. What is a basketball documentary if it doesn't even have dribbles, dunks and making goals? This is a stark contrast to Cha Escala & Wena Sanchez's  "Nick and Chai" which has beautifully framed and efficiently photographed scenography. Sometimes "a big heart" just doesn't suffice when you're presenting an artistic medium like cinema. You just don't point and shoot unless you're content to being labelled an amateur - or someone hiding behind the guise of "documentarian". To put it bluntly, shoddy camera work is not art, unless you're Lars von Trier.

Moreover, the film feels like a fragment of a bigger picture. We don't see the earlier selection process that lead them to qualify for the Under-11 team. It's like getting into a novel midway into the book, and we're made to swallow what's being spoonfed. The prologue feels wanting. We're shown a few kids returning to their homes.  These limited scenes don't even have enough traction to get through as narrative denouement. What has the kids taken with them from their very British experience? Where has this journey taken them? Are they better players, or persons, after their experience? If anything, there's a sense of expurgated closure; an unfinished story waiting to be told.

Bright faces pose for posterity.

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