As everyone who has ever walked into a bar when a game is on knows, sports supporters who are loyal to their team aren’t necessarily the most reasonable people. But a little tribalism among fans brings and keeps them together. However, when politics, religion and nationalism also become part of the mix, this tribalism can become a very dangerous thing, as the terrific new documentary Forever Pure shows in no uncertain terms. Following the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team during the 2012-13 season, rookie director Maya Zinshtein explores not just a difficult year for a sports team but nothing less than an ugly part of Israeli society in which racism and racial purity are celebrated as virtues.
After winning the best director and best editing nods at the Jerusalem Film Festival over the summer, the film had its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, no doubt the first of many stops on the festival circuit.
One hell of a documentary.
Beitar Jerusalem FC has traditionally been much more than a soccer club. As suggested early on in Zinshtein’s film, local and national politicians have used their professed support of the club to rally its enormous fanbase, composed of very loyal and often also very vocal supporters, before elections. The advantages are numerous, including the enormous reach and the fact that being fan of a soccer team is seen as a non-political act that puts politicians on the same level as the mostly working-class supporters, making them more relatable.
This knowledge is key to an understanding of the disaster that was the 2012-13 season. In 2008, Russian oligarch Arcadi Gaydamak was hoping to become the new mayor of Jerusalem. His ownership of Beitar, secured a few years earlier, could potentially have been used as a campaigning tool but Gaydamak finally received just a few percent of the votes. Zinshtein’s on-camera interviews with the oligarch, who barely seems to speak any Hebrew, are chilling to behold, as the man has no problems in admitting what his plans were.
What is less directly addressed, but nonetheless suggested through the expert editing credited to Justine Wright and Noam Amit, is how the owner’s political defeat is related to his decision to bring on board to young Chechen players for the 2012-13 season. Foreign players aren’t unusual in Israeli soccer — and indeed Beitar already had a player from Latin America — but Gaydamak’s unexpected move was a shock for the core group of Beitar fans, known as the Familia. They pride themselves on the fact that their club is the only national soccer team that has never signed an Arab player — the film’s title is their proud chant that underlines the club’s “racial purity” — and they are now confronted with not one but two Muslim players at once. A form of revenge? Possibly. A way to thoroughly agitate Israeli sports and society at large? Certainly.
Zinshtein’s film intelligently dissects the many contradictions at play here, starting with the fact that it is absolutely shocking that Israelis, just a couple of generations after the Holocaust, want to pride themselves on any kind of racial purity to the explicit exclusion of others. The way in which different things get conflated — “Muslim” and “Arab” are two distinctly different things and Chechens are Muslims but definitely not Arabs — so they can be boiled down into angry and hateful rallying cries is a tragic and recurring theme.
It is shocking to see how the core group of supporters manages to turn the legions of fans against the club they profess to love so much. And all this only because of the arrival of two largely innocent pawns, 19-year-old Dzhabrail Kadiyev and 23-year-old Zaur Sadayev, the devoutly religious Chechen players who clearly had no clue what they were in for. (One of the film’s best scenes shows them holed up in their hotel room, like caged animals unable to understand what’s going on around them.)
The supporters’ loudly voiced anger and incitements to hatred finally result not only in practically empty stadiums but also physical threats and completely demotivated players. This in turn influences not only the lives but also the careers of people like the team’s captain and goalie, Ariel Harush, who tries to keep his team together but who suffers from being branded a traitor and worse. The possibility he’ll be transferred to Europe, which he’s always dreamed of, seems to become smaller and smaller because the entire team suffers from all the negative energy and constant taunts during games and even their training sessions and after a good season start, they quickly plunge to the bottom of the league.
The appeal of the story for the director, a former investigative journalist with the left-wing Haaretz newspaper, is clear, as the story ends up using a sports team’s terrible season as a metaphor for the ugly side of a part of Israeli society and the complex and manifold ways in which a seemingly innocent game can be used by demagogues to not only reach but especially influence the masses. It’s a scary sight to behold but thanks to Zinshtein’s talent, it’s also frighteningly insightful.
(Full disclosure: this critic was on the jury at the Jerusalem Film Festival that awarded this film.)
Production companies: Duckin’ & Divin’ Films, Maya Films, Passion Pictures, Roads Entertainment, Piraya Film
Writer-director: Maya Zinshtein
Producers: Maya Zinshtein, Geoff Arbourne
Executive producers: John Battsek, Nicole Stott
Cinematography: Sergei Freedman, Yaniv Linton, Ross McDonnell
Editors: Justine Wright, Noam Amit
Music: Stephen Rennicks
No rating, 85 minutes