Monday, 20 February 2012

Football's odd man out on film: Substitute

If you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend the film Substitute, which screened last week in Ciné Lumière's Ready Steady Doc! sporting season. The film was made by French footballer Vikash Dhorasoo, who shot his experiences of World Cup 2006 on a Super 8 camera given to him by his friend Fred Poulet, the film's co-director.

A midfielder who played for Lyon, AC Milan and PSG, among others, Dhorasoo helped France qualify, but once Raymond Domenech's team reaches the tournament he finds himself abandoned. He plays only 16 minutes of football.

He voices his frustration in phone calls to Poulet, who follows him around Germany for games. (The film could also serve as a nice little portrait of the country: it feels very familiar.) Dhorasoo speaks eloquently of his role, in the main avoiding the clichés to which we're permanently subjected in the English game. (Can we make out books by Jonathan Coe and Stefan Zweig in blurry shot, or am I imagining it?)

Redemption for the player comes when he decides to throw himself wholeheartedly into the documentary project, though this could as easily be his undoing, alienating him from teammates and the management (he quit not long after). Poulet makes the most of the initial footage Dhorasoo shoots to underline the footballer's estrangement from the squad but it is, too, a convenient fiction.

Dhorasoo can't show his clunky camera in public - nor film other protagonists privately without their permission - so we're left with the world of the footballer-traveller: hotel rooms, hotel corridors; there are several poignant shots of the team schedule, including matches in which Dhorasoo will never play. The technology he's given, which gives the film a nostalgic look redolent of the 1970s, contrasts with the 17 cameras trained on Zinedine Zidane by Douglas Gordon in the same year for film Zidane.

Zidane's availability, of course, is the main reason Dhorasoo is not playing and it is Zidane's outrageous act in the final that condemns France to finishing as runners-up. Throughout the film sports fans are confronted by the foreknowledge of the team's results and Poulet expends little energy filling us in; instead we have Dhorasoo wandering onto the pitch on his own at the final whistle of a game to salute the fans, or training with two other players who seem to have been left to have their own kickabout on the fringes of the main squad.

There's uncommon serendipity: Poulet films Dhorasoo in the grounds of the team hotel when, unnoticed by both, a branch falls from a tree to the ground behind the footballer. If a branch falls from a tree and nobody notices... A beautiful film, which I must try and get on DVD.

Ready Steady Doc! closes this Thursday, 23 February, with a look at the London 1948 Olympic Games through the eyes of the visiting Belgian team. The screening is due to be attended 98-year-old Yvonne Van Bets, who was a member of that team.

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