As the UEFA Euro 2016 finishes, one director is asking a potent question: Why is football still homophobic? We speak to Rhys Chapman, director of WONDERKID about equality in football.
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Football, a energetic sport that brings a nation together, exudes national pride and highlights athleticism within our culture. However, with all the positivity comes many a negative. With an a steady rise of reports of racism, homophobia and ablism within the game, rising from 26% during 2013/14 season, to 37% in 2014/15 season (Kick It Out Org). Young director Rhys Chapman gives us WONDERKID the portrayal of a gay footballer in a hyper-masculine sport, making us question how we can make football more inclusive.
Unfortunately even in 2016 there is a really unspoken level of homophobia that is institutionalised and built into the DNA of football as a sport. This needs to change.
- Nik Thakker, Designer & Activist, Ada + Nik
Homophobia VS Football
There have been a few football films that look at issues within the game, probably most famous being "Bend It Like Beckham". However, no one has really looked at the sensitive topic that is homophobia in football.
It is true that in 2016 the LGBT community is still under attack, just look at Orlando's recent massacre if you don't believe me. It's hard to conceive that in 2016 we are still fighting for inclusivity and equal rights, especially considering the fact that homosexuality has been decriminalised since 1967. Though people are still fighting, charities such as Kick It Out, Rainbow laces and footballvhomophobia monitor and act against reports of discrimination within football. Where as ex-footballers who are gay, such as Justin Fashanu, Liam Davis, Thomas Hitzlsperger and Aslie Pitter, have come out and told their stories.
Wonderkid not only seeks to address these issues in an artistic and credible way, in a similar way to how Bend it like Beckham addressed female and POC sports people in the country.
With a straight ally as a director of the film and subject matter, it is being opened up to not only an LGBT audience which is so often what happens to these films - but a wider demographic which is what we need.
As football stands as an industry at the moment, it needs to be reassessed urgently and I hope that this film achieves that goal (pun) exactly. Until then, we should not be endorsing football as a sport as an LGBT community until the inherent a homophobia which stems from sponsors, managers, players themselves and the fans, is eliminated completely from the game.
- Nik Thakkar, Designer & Activist, Ada + Nik
It is claimed that some clubs suppress player from coming out, as this will "lower" their market value, and in effect hurt the club, Peter Clay who chairs the FA's "Homophobia in Football" has spoken openly about these claims.
Players who are gay or presumed gay get backlash from players, fans and the media, so it's easy to see why less than a handful of players have ever spoken out about their sexuality. Most players wait until they leave the game to come out, and as it currently stands there are no openly gay footballers out of 5000 we have in the UK. The FA and football clubs have recently tried to help in lessoning the discrimination in football, with the FA in 2012 releasing a video with players Adrian Williams, John Scales, and Brendon Batson, discussing homophobia in football. While clubs have activley banned the chanting of homophobic rhetoric.
In a world where football lives in it's own social structure, it's hard to educate people on deeper issues. Generally discrimination within football is brushed off as being part of the culture, just being a joke and not to be taken seriously. Though it can be said that not all fans follow this thought process, one survey by Staffordshire University showed that more than 90% of football fans would not hold any hostility to a footballer coming out as gay.
WONDERKID x Rhys Chapman
The Idle Man sat down with the director of WONDERKID, Rhys Chapman, to get his views on the cause, and why he thought it was important to put the message out there:
What made you focus on the issue of homophobia in football?
When I first got into filmmaking I decided that the films I made would have a strong message and could help people. I’ve played football most of my life and have been exposed to the environment from an early age. I always remember hearing about Justin Fashanu’s suicide and once I started researching the issue I was shocked. I knew a film based on this issue was a perfect way to raise awareness about a lack of openly gay footballers and make football more inclusive.
Do you see a time in the near future when football is fully inclusive?
Yeah definitely, I would like to think that in this country we aren’t too far away and the things that are being done now will make football a more welcoming place in the not so distant future. You only need to look at what happened with the Russian fans in France recently and that the next two World Cup’s are being held in countries with terrible human rights laws, to see that there is a lot that needs to be done on the global stage.
You have some amazing sponsors backing your film, how does that feel to see people responding to the issue?
It has been wonderful. I found it very difficult to get people to even talk about it a few years ago and the backing we have received has given me a lot of confidence in what I am doing. There is a lot of responsibility that has come from the backing we have received but that has only driven me further to make the film the best it could possibly be and I couldn’t be happier with how the film has turned out.
What made you choose doing a 30-minute short?
I would have loved to have made a feature film but because I was a first time director it was hard enough for people to even let me even make this film.
WONDERKID is a feature quality film that only takes a short amount of time to watch. With cinema attendance on the decline, nowadays people tend to only go to the cinema for something they really want to see and I think the ideal way to reach people with this film is to make it available for free online. I see it as a modern feature film for the distracted YouTube / smart phone generation and the best way to bring this issue to a global audience.
Some people believe the inclusion issue in football isn't actually that serious, and that it's part of the football culture. How do you feel about that?
The problem is that a lot of people think homophobia is just a bit of a joke and it is not as severe as racism. Until we start having players coming out the only way to fight against this is through education and campaigning, which is why I knew making WONDERKID was so important.
If enough people see this film, it can make a huge difference in football. Anyone that watches this film will understand that everyone deserves to live their life free from fear and that all we need to do to make players feel safe enough to come out is to let them know that it is ok to be yourself.
Do you think you will continue down the path of making thought provoking activist films?
Always, narrative driven filmmaking is the ultimate tool for social change. You have the ability to create a whole piece and totally consume the audience's senses, make them question things they wouldn’t ordinarily think about, move them and recondition their beliefs. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use the medium to make the world a better place and I plan to dedicate the rest of my life to making films in this way.
You must have done a lot of research before you decided to make this into a film, what was the turning point that made you realise this was the issue that needed attention?
It was the initial statistic that jumped out at me ‘out of the 5000 male professionals in this country not one is openly gay’.
When I look at the good work that has been done in the game with racism, I knew that this was the next step and it gave me hope that it is achievable. I think in the next few years both sexuality & gender issues are going to become a focus and football absolutely has to change.
Football is the most watched sport in the world. The Premier League has a global audience of around 450 million, so it is incredibly important that we start to see gay role models at the top of the game, especially for those watching in countries that are less gay friendly. Having gay role models in football can also help pave the way for the work that needs to be done with the transgender community, as they don’t have any where near the safety and security they need.
How did the OCD aspect of the main character come about?
Many footballers have bizarre superstitions and pre match rituals. I found that this is because as there are so many things out of a player's control on the pitch that are out of their control, this increases a footballer’s need to control what they can as a calming mechanism. The life of a footballer is also very repetitive, kicking a football all day for 30 years of your life isn’t natural and it wires footballers’ brains to like routine. Another major cause of OCD is trauma, and because his life both on and off the pitch is out of his control, I thought this would be a great way of showing how hiding his sexuality would lead to it spiraling out of control.
How did you choose who to cast for the main roles?
We were very lucky to have Des Hamilton cast the film. I was fortunate enough to see many talented actors in casting. When I first saw Chris Mason’s interpretation I just knew he was the one. He is a fantastic young actor and with the character he didn’t adhere to any stereotypes and played him as a brave and inspiring but equally scarred young man. He completely understood the characters’ motivation and when I found out his passion for football I knew he would go above and beyond for the role.
With Leeshon Alexander who plays Johnny, I saw him play both leading roles in We are Monster and knew we had to have him as Johnny straight away.
Troy Glasgow who plays the alpha male captain, blew me away in casting. He played the character in a mischievous but equally terrifying way and was very similar to many people I played football with growing up.
I’m incredibly grateful to have had Des Hamilton on board and to have been blessed with this top actors as they have really done the film justice and made it feel like you’re watching a real story.
Other sports are deemed more progressive in their acceptance of equality. Why do you think it has taken so long for football to react?
Football is a working class sport and hasn’t had to answer the questions that wider society has but all that is changing. I think the main problem is the hyper-masculine environment that exists within football where you’re expected to bottle up your problems and any emotion is a sign of weakness. The fans on the terraces are also very intimidating and the fear of the reaction of the fans is the main thing that is stopping players from feeling safe enough to come out. Until campaigns on homophobia get widespread coverage or we start to see players come out I think football will remain behind other sports. I hope that the attention WONDERKID receives can help get coverage to the good work done by those campaigning for LGBT equality in football.
Especially now after the horrific Orlando attack LGBT communities are going to quite sensitive about the issues raised in the film. In what ways have you actively strived towards making this story as true of a portrayal as possible?
I’ve spent the last 3 years completely immersed in LGBT campaigning and culture. I have completed devoted my life to ensuring this film is the best it can be and as authentic as possible.
I am football mad and knew exactly what was required to make that side of the film authentic but being straight I definitely needed the help from those that had first hand experiences with this subject. The help I have had from people within the gay community has been phenomenal. Not only have people offered their feedback but have taken the time to passionately get involved and make sure that it is the best it can be and as true a portrayal as possible.
Orlando was horrible, it really knocked the wind out of me but it has really emphasised the importance of what we’re doing. The reaction of the people and the strong sense of community has really shown that people are inherently good.
The core message in the film is that it is ok to be yourself and this is something everyone can relate to. I am over the moon with what we have achieved with the film and I know it can make a huge difference in football.
WONDERKID will premiere at the Odeon in Leicester Square before the start of next season and will be released online before the end of the year