Goal difference

Pub date December 28, 2010
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm Features


YEAR IN FILM Making a mistake on the playing field can haunt an athlete for the rest of his or her career. For Colombian soccer star Andrés Escobar, a particularly heartbreaking blunder — an own goal during the 1994 World Cup — proved fatal. Just two weeks after Colombia’s first-round defeat in the tournament they’d been favored to win, team captain Escobar was shot after leaving a nightclub in his hometown of Medellín. There were rumors the killer yelled “Goal!” as he unloaded.

Presented merely as a sports-history anecdote, Escobar’s demise is sad and senseless. But his murder wasn’t an isolated incident, just a particularly high-profile one; it was part of an unimaginable tide of violence that swept Colombia in the 1980s and ’90s. If you watched the 2010 World Cup on ESPN, you probably saw commercials for The Two Escobars, presented as part of the channel’s “30 for 30” documentary series. Participants included genre pioneer Albert Maysles, whose film was about Muhammed Ali; Ice Cube, who used his own South Central childhood to reflect on the Raiders’ 1982 move from Oakland to Los Angeles; and brothers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, whose longer entry The Two Escobars sifted through years of Colombian history to trace the corresponding lives of Andrés “The Gentleman of Football” Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.

At 32, Jeff, who lives in San Francisco, is the older brother by 17 months. In 2005, he codirected the award-winning Brazilian music doc Favela Rising. Michael, an actor and writer who ran a theater company in Mexico for several years, lives in New York City. Though they’re Americans, the Zimbalists feel a strong connection to Colombian culture. They were researching another film in the country (previous endeavors included a project with Colombian superstar Shakira) when ESPN asked them to pitch an idea for “30 for 30.” Though the shared last name of the unrelated Andrés and Pablo makes for a memorable title, the brothers didn’t use the coincidence as a starting point.

“We didn’t choose the title until really late, actually, because it felt like it was more of a portrait of a time period. It was about the hopes and dreams of the Colombian people as told through the vehicle of these two characters,” Jeff says. “The choice to use the two characters came about more organically than that, too. Initially we had the assignment to go find story ideas for the ESPN series that were about the impact of sports on society, and vice versa.”

After learning more about Andrés, they knew they’d found a captivating subject. They also realized that they would need to contextualize his story in order to tell it properly.

“We didn’t want to make a whodunnit about who pulled the trigger,” Jeff says. “It was a lot more interesting to ask the question of how an athlete gets killed for making a mistake. But in order to understand that, you need to understand what narco-soccer is. We quickly realized that hadn’t been covered before. And that meant that people were very reluctant to talk about it for a number of reasons: out of fear, shame, or they didn’t want to revisit a traumatic time period.”

The idea of “narco-soccer” led the filmmakers directly to their other subject. “You can’t really explain the whole context of narco without understanding Pablo Escobar. And it also felt unwieldy to not tie the societal story to a subject, or to a personal narrative,” Jeff explains. “So using Pablo as the tool through which we could explain society, and Andres as the tool through which we could understand sports, the next challenge was finding their overlaps. They only literally overlap a number of times in their lives. So how does the story justifies the use of these two characters? It has to be thematic — and there was tons of great, thematic overlap, and parallel and contrast, between the two Escobars.”

If you weren’t among the millions who watched The Two Escobars‘ repeat showings on ESPN (or caught it at the Sundance Kabuki as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s “SFFS Screen” programming), here’s a crash course in narco-soccer, as explained by the movie: during the ’80s and ’90s, Colombian drug lords invested in soccer teams as a way to launder their ill-gotten gains. As teams’ coffers grew, so did their ability to hire top-notch players. Sides flush with dirty cash racked up victories and corruption behind the scenes grew to outlandish proportions. Referees could easily be bought — or eliminated. A huge soccer fan who’d risen from poverty, then used his wealth to build fields in the slums, Pablo was one of these investors. Andrés, of course, was one of the league’s stars.

Using no narrator, The Two Escobars instead weaves its account with contemporary interviews (the exhaustive list of talking heads includes soccer legends, jailed gangsters, coaches, cops, and the sisters of both Escobars) and expertly edited archival footage that enables the viewer to witness just about everything discussed: the might of Colombia’s national team in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup; the sight of Pablo enjoying soccer on both his palatial estate and, incredibly, while incarcerated; the horrific violence that became an everyday occurrence during Pablo’s war on Colombia’s government.

Obtaining these hours of interviews and footage — only a fraction of which made it into the final cut — posed various challenges. “[Subjects] were reluctant to talk for many reasons: it’s taboo; it’s often felt to be dangerous still,” Jeff says. “So there is fear. And also, it is traumatic to go back and visit those emotions. A lot of people would rather bottle that up. I’m not one to judge because I didn’t live during the reign of Pablo Escobar and [anti-Escobar vigilante group] Los Pepes in Colombia. But I do believe that expressing that stuff and getting it out can be cathartic.”

Culling the archival footage used in The Two Escobars took months of plowing through broadcast vaults, the private archives of both Escobars, and films shot by military police and amateur videographers. “We knew it wasn’t gonna be as powerful a film, as accessible a film, if we just rooted it in present-day talking head interviews,” Jeff says. “We needed to transport the viewer back into that time period. A lot of our decision to tell both the narratives of Pablo and Andrés, and make it bigger than just the ESPN assignment, to make it a theatrical movie, was hanging on whether or not we were able to find enough compelling visuals to create real scenes. We had myself, my brother, and a team of people just going through tapes.”

Editing was a monumental task, proving both labor-intensive and emotionally trying. “It was very difficult to whittle down the story,” Michael says. “At one point, we had a film that was sort of focused on being the first exposé of this secret world of narco-soccer. We had hours of anecdotes that really blew our minds. We ended up reducing that whole part of the story to what you could call act one of the movie, and that was certainly difficult. You’re just sorry to see things go.”

Though The Two Escobars screened worldwide, not just on ESPN but at the Tribeca and Cannes film festivals, one place it hasn’t been seen is, ironically, Colombia. Due to the sensitive subject matter, and objections to the final product by Andrés Escobar’s family — who didn’t appreciate being associated with Pablo Escobar — “it’s been completely censored,” Jeff says, noting that he and his brother did not intend to mislead anyone during the filming.

“We always knew it was going to be extremely controversial,” Michael says. “I was nervous in terms of what the reactions from Colombians would be, because obviously it’s very delicate, very loaded subject matter. There’s so much visceral emotion for any Colombian who went through that period of time. Virtually everyone who lived there in the ’80s and ’90s was touched by that violence.”

Though the brothers are disappointed the film hasn’t been shown in Colombia, that doesn’t mean no Colombians have seen it.

“Everywhere we’ve shown the film and done a Q&A, there have been Colombians present,” Michael says. “That’s been a really rewarding experience.”

“For Colombians, it’s not an easy 100 minutes to sit through,” adds Jeff. “But by the end, [the Colombians we’ve met] do feel that it’s an accurate portrayal, that it’s balanced journalism, and that the message is an important one about Colombia moving forward. It presents a lot of hope through Andrés’ family. That was our goal, to create a portrayal of Andrés that was heroic. We made sure the voice of his family is the takeaway from the movie. I think it couldn’t be more clear once you see the film how opposite Pablo and Andrés are in terms of who they are and what they stand for. I hope that Colombians get a chance to see the film because they’ll realize that.”