You can’t make a movie about blind footballers without actually experiencing what they go through. That was Eye On The Ball director Chen Yih Wen’s thinking when she decided to put on a blindfold and get on the pitch herself.
“I figured, since I’m making a film about blind football, I would like to know what it is like, ” she said.
“I think at first I was quite confident because I’ve seen how the coach trained them, and in my head I was also thinking that I know the formation and all that stuff... Then when I put on the blindfold, I thought I would remember what is to my left and to my right, but it doesn’t work that way...
“I don’t remember how long I played, but I was still quite confident until the ball hit my face! After that, I was really scared, and kept putting my hands in front of my face.”
After her game, Chen had newfound respect for the subjects and stars of her film – the Malaysian national blind football team, also known as the Harimau Buta.
According to Chen, her initial research into the world of the visually-impaired was nothing compared to that short time on the pitch.
“Before that, I tried to do some stuff at home, like just closing my eyes, but I could still remember where my things were. But this is football, where someone might run into you, or someone might kick my ankles!” she recalled.
Eye On The Ball, which is produced by Star Media Group’s R.AGE team, follows the Malaysian blind football team as they, emboldened by their victory at the 2015 Asean Para Games, attempt to qualify for the World Cup of blind football.
The film aims to raise support for the team, whose humble beginnings saw coach Sunny Shalesh gather a group of players from largely underprivileged backgrounds to give them a shot at a better life through the Pan-Disability Football Club.
Eye On The Ball was originally set to open in cinemas in March this year, but was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It will now make its exclusive premiere on Astro First tomorrow (Aug 20).
Funnily enough, Chen initially did not set out to make a full feature film documentary, but an opportunity to attend a documentary festival in New Zealand changed that.
“I was told that I needed a story to pitch at the pitching forum there, ” she recalled. “So I thought of the team, and after digging a little deeper (into their story), I realised that each of them have their own journeys. So I just wrote a story based on that.”
While she had little to no expectations that her pitch would make any waves at the forum, she was surprised when the festival director, a Malaysian who has been living in New Zealand for the past few years, expressed interest in the project.
“He walked up to me and he said, ‘If you’re serious about producing the film, I would be keen to help you out’, ” she recalled.
“Then I came back to Malaysia, and after a few months, he texted me about the project, and I was like, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to do it now!’”
Telling their stories
All the same, there was something about the team that made Chen feel like she must absolutely tell their story.
“It wasn’t just the football – it was the relationship between the players, and also the coach. It’s like a small family unit.”
Chen, who started working on the film in 2016, said the film not only follows their sporting journey, but also their personal stories as well.
“I try to film them in their daily lives as well, and also their families, because I want to show where they come from, ” she said.
The Malaysian blind football team currently has 17 players, two coaches, two sighted goalkeepers, and two goal guides who stand behind the opponents goal to direct the players where to shoot.
In the end, Chen decided to focus her film on the head coach, Sunny, and a few players, including Asri Arshad and Rollen Marakim.
“I knew the coach, Sunny, would be one of the main characters, because he was the one who brought the team together. Very early on, I wanted Asri to be one of the characters. He’s very funny, but he’s also very shy and very private, so it was hard to get him to open up to me, ” she said.
“I think it was very important to have Rollen in the film. He is the only East Malaysian in the team, and for him to come here from his village... his story is very inspiring.”
According to her, the hardest part of the shoot was how to capture the sporting action.
“Because with a sports film, you can’t tell them to do another take! So for the bigger games like the Asean Para Games, we had four cameras, but for the other games it was just one, ” she said.
“I also had to think about how to show the audience how the game is like. I couldn’t just show them what’s happening from the outside. So these were the things I needed to work on with the cinematographer.”
She also explained that because the footballers are blind, they don’t move like sighted people do. “So for a sighted footballer, once they get the ball, they would go straight for the goal. But for them, they might make an extra turn before they go, so we had to adapt to that as well, ” she recalled.
Even shooting the non-action scenes was a challenge, especially the indoor scenes.
“We tend to have a lot of equipment, and I had to tell the crew that they can’t just put their tripod anywhere they want, because the actors can’t see, and would kick it!” she said.
“It’s really about trying to adapt yourself into the space and since it’s a documentary I couldn’t direct where they are walking, so we have to allocate space for the cameraman to move in case they come towards them.”
Plight of the blind
At the end of the day, there are two things Chen hopes Malaysians will get out of her film. Firstly, it’s that more Malaysians would give documentaries a chance.
“I think documentaries are very important. They can be entertaining as well. Documentaries are a window to a world that we don’t know about, and there’s so much that we can learn, ” she said.
“Malaysia, has the talent (to produce great documentaries), but even the most talented person will need funding and support. I’m very lucky that this project got the funding, but there are also a lot of other documentary filmmakers who have important stories to tell about Malaysians.”
Ultimately, Chen hopes that Eye On The Ball will help Malaysians understand more about a blind person’s life.
“I didn’t know much about the blind community when I first started on this film. We just don’t realise that they can do so much more than we think they can, but they don’t get the opportunities for education, employment because we don’t understand what they can do, ” she explained.
“What the coach has done with these footballers, you can really see how it changes their lives.
“One thing the coach tells me is that when they walk on the streets, they need a walking cane, but when they play football, they don’t need it. Think about it, you’ll never see a blind person running on the street, but because of football, they can do that.
“So I hope that Malaysian society would understand a bit more about the blind, and work together or just give them a chance.”
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