Denver’s first World Football Film Festival kicks off at Sie FilmCenter

· Jun. 2, 2014, 6:00 am
Photo: Jaiyah Saelua
Jaiyah Saelua, far right, on the pitch for American Samoa.
But the tiny U.S. territory has special relevance in today’s sporting world. 
You can learn all about it in “Next Goal Wins,” the 2104 documentary by filmmakers Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, that’s kicking off Denver’s first World Football Film Festival
Presented by the Denver Film Society from June 5-8 at the Sie FilmCenter in Denver, the Festival's lineup includes the feature films “The Damned United” and “Victory,” and documentaries like “The Beautiful Game." 
Ryan Oestreich, director of the Sie FilmCenter, says that he knows of no other soccer film festivals in Colorado, and with its inaugural soccer event, Denver seems to joining a small club.
A nonprofit called Kicking + Screening Soccer Film Festival -- which began in 2009 in New York -- has or plans to stage festivals in Washington, D.C., Houston, Massachusetts, London, India, Liverpool and Oregon. 
Greg Lalas, a Kicking + Screening founder and editor-in-chief of Major League Soccer’s official website, says he knows of soccer film festivals in Berlin and Brazil, and that there has been a one-shot soccer film festival in Japan.
But in a world of proliferating festivals, soccer-oriented film fests seem a relative rarity.
Another rarity: The American Samoa soccer team includes the first transgender person to play in a World Cup competition. 
As "The Next Goal Wins" explores, the distinction earns American Samoa, a territory of slightly more than 55,000 inhabitants, a place in the pantheon of gender-and-sexuality-related sports stories.
In other fields, this type of disclosure would probably prompt reactions somewhere between yawns and indifference. 
But in sports, sexual and gender orientation continue to make headline news.
Prominent examples include the scandal caused by the openly gay footballer, Michael Sam, when he publicly kissed his boyfriend after being drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, and the Brooklyn Nets’ decision to hire the gay basketball player Jason Collins towards the end of the 2014 season. 
American Samoa’s soccer team is similarly part of this story.
In Polynesian culture, transgender center-half Jaiyah Saelua, who identifies as a woman, is called a “fa’afafine” -- someone belonging to a “third gender.” The term denotes males who display feminine traits.
Writing in the New Statesman, commentator Eleanor Margolis astutely describes Saelua as an “underdog within an underdog.”
But here’s the thing: None of Saelua’s teammates seem to care.
“The total inclusivity is breathtaking to see,’’ American Samoa soccer team coach Thomas Rongen says in a phone interview from his home in Florida. “I’m talking about mutual acceptance, which is all too uncommon in today’s athletic world.”
The Danish-born Rongen, who held previous positions as head coach of DC United in Washington D.C. and academy director for Toronto Football Club in Canada, says that it may even have helped that Saelua brought a bit of a feminine presence to the locker room. 
His is a view that’s not likely to gain a lot of traction in much of the macho-oriented sports world.
Saelua, 25,  learned to play soccer as a student in a private school. She was 11 years old when she started playing the sport.
“It wasn’t until high school that I met other fa’afafine, and we became really close,” Saelua says, speaking via phone from Hawaii. “I picked up habits from them, plucking my eyebrows and shaving my legs.”
Saelua may be accepted by her teammates, but not always by the opposition. She says only one player -- from the Cook Islands -- has ever said anything derogatory on the pitch. But she is conscious of being a target.
“The tackles were harder against me,’’ Saelua says. “But it only made me play harder and smarter. I tried to use it to my advantage.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. American Samoa is not a hippy paradise. 
According to Rongen, American Samoans tend to be family-oriented and devoutly Christian. At 5 p.m.,  players join the rest of the island in 15 minutes of prayer, Rongen says.
But they don’t turn their noses up at Saelua, and Rongen - a self-described atheist - respects the sincerity of his players’ beliefs, as well as what he calls their “pure love” of the game.
“I found a bunch of amateurs who allowed me to find what the real spirit of football is all about again and to remember why I started playing the game in the first place,” Rongen says. “It was refreshing to see a bunch of guys who were so joyous. It’s a band of brothers, a group of people who really enjoy being together and competing.’’ 
The American Samoa soccer team may be winning victories for openness  in the traditionally male-dominated sports environment. But victories on the field are few and far between. 
Even though the team scored a two-to-one win over Tonga - the only victory that team has ever won in the history of the World Cup  -- American Samoa didn’t make it very far in this year’s competition. 
The team tied in its second game with the Cook Islands (1-1), but lost its third game in the final seconds to Samoa (1-0), the island group of which American Samoa is a part.
Now, Saelua says she’ll be rooting for Portugal. 
Why? She says she has a crush on superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays for Portugal.
“I want to play one more time for the national team and then focus on my transition surgery,’’ Saelua says. “I was going to do it last year, but I decided I wanted to play again. That’s a personal decision. I could have played after the operation, but I thought it would be risky for me.”
Saelua plans to do her part by working as an “ambassador against homophobia” in the sport.
The American Samoa soccer team may never reach the World Cup finals. But one day in the not-too-distant future, Saelua may prevail.
The World Football Film Festival runs from June 5-8 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 E. Colfax Avenue in Denver.

Robert Denerstein reviewed movies for The Rocky Mountain New for 27 years and still writes about movies at

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