Reviews Short Documentary

So Loud the Sky Can Hear Us (2022) – 4.5 stars

Director: Lavinia Xausa

Writer: Lavinia Xausa

Running time: 21mins

Based in Rotterdam, Rauwkost Film has been helping independent filmmakers in the port city tell authentic stories in a stunning audio-visual language for 10 years. Lavinia Xausa’s short documentary So Loud the Sky Can Hear Us is no exception to this, painting a complex picture of the lives clashing and entwining with each other in Rotterdam – via an uncompromising exploration of the city’s most famous football club.

Xausa sets the movie’s tone with an opening scene capturing a choir, whose harmonies echo through the ornately decorated bones of a church. As their close harmonies reverberate throughout the cavernous space, Lawrence Lee’s hand-held cinematography seems to offer up the view of some higher power, guiding the voices of the eight men and binding it into a single melody.

The next cut takes this concept of some unifying spirit taking the contradictory voices of thousands of people, and making them one, as a sprawling mass of Feyenoord fans cheer their team on from the stands of De Kuip. Behind the grand choral sheet music by Alberto Granados Reguilón, and the booming clamour of the stadium, Ismael Astri Lo’s hands-off composition manages to make the most of both glorious sets of sound – interspersing them with occasional bursts of electronic energy, or humming tension.

As the tumult of the stadium’s crowd gradually drowns out the choir, we get the feeling that we are on hallowed ground, bringing to mind Diego Maradona’s famous quote; “Football isn’t a game, nor a sport, it’s a religion.”

The ecstatic highs and devastating lows of the life of Maradona – one of the sport’s global deities – suggest that treating the pulls of football as a holy order might be understandable amid our current social and economic moment, but it might not always be entirely healthy either. It is this juxtaposition which Xausa explores over the next 21 minutes; using a series of telling interviews to examine exactly what the religious experience means, for better or worse.

In the modern world, a mass disenfranchisement has taken place – governments have become less accountable to those they govern, while holding greater power over them. The dream of people being able to use politics to obtain a better standard of life subsequently seems out of reach – at a time when modern capitalism is also eating itself as it seeks to stave off the law of diminishing returns – destroying homes, livelihoods and the planet in the process. In that context, finding one last vestige of collective identity, where we can stand together and remember what it is like to have the support of others – to reconnect with the heart, in a heartless world – is something which has an undeniable allure.

Several of the talking heads reflect the draw football has in their interviews. One misty-eyed fan recalls that when he came to the Netherlands from Cabo Verde in 1997, engaging with Feyenoord helped him to settle into Dutch culture. Having embraced the club from day one, he has met and befriended people he would probably never have otherwise known, and suggests that while other people might go to a church on a Sunday, weekend visits to De Kuip are his equivalent.

Another supporter who originates from the city makes quiet conversation with his partner about an upcoming match over dinner. Exploring the idea that attending matches is about more than football, he adds that “when you are talking about football, you are not just talking about football – but also about society or personal lives” – including finances, violence, and everything in between.

At the same time, though, as much as fans like to see themselves as ‘part of the club’, there is precious little reciprocity in this relationship. The brutal reality is that most football clubs are simply run as business franchises now, and first and foremost their commitments are to their bottom-lines, rather than the welfare of their followers. While they might pay lip-service to the noise and atmosphere fans bring to a stadium, if the choice is between money or love, they can very easily look the other way on a number of key issues. This is exemplified by one scene in which a member of the flock seems to be on the verge of losing his faith.

He is currently locked in a legal battle to save his home, which stands in an area of Rotterdam marked out for re-development. With nowhere else to go, he and his partner are determined to remain in the neighbourhood they have spent more than 50 years in – whatever the profiteers aiming to gentrify the area have to say. Reminiscent of Rauwkost Film’s other IFL entry, Rotterdam, verlaat ons niet, the segment speaks of a city which has built an authentic and unique spirit on the back of these kinds of people, but are ready to throw them under the bus in order to cash in on that reputation now. Feyenoord is very much part of that, with the witness saying the club wanted nothing to do with his fight for justice – especially as the club itself is dependant on the process of ‘regeneration’ to bring in a new cash-cow stadium.

As is often the case with identities built on religion or nationality, then, with little material benefit coming from the club to fans, supporters looking to define what being part of Feyenoord means are left clutching at some unnerving straws. For all the potential for togetherness that their religious fervour generates, Feyenoord’s fans – like the supporters of many other clubs – have trouble explaining their ‘unity’ without drawing it in opposition to an unseen ‘other’ whom all of life’s ills can be blamed upon. Throughout the ages, wars, persecution and genocide have taken aim at marginalised groups, as a means to solidify a violent and inequitable political project. The “socialism of fools” that is antisemitism remains no stranger to the terraces, as a result – and Feyenoord’s supporters in particular seem to have a lingering problem with it, thanks to their long-standing rivalry with Ajax. Amsterdam’s premiere club is popularly seen as having “Jewish roots” and for decades, rival supporters have been weaponising this.

Xausa’s footage captures an uncomfortable moment within the throng of Feyenoord supporters, as they begin to chant “Whoever does not jump is a Jew”, while the fans dance in their seats. So, what it means to be Feyenoord here is not just someone fervently supporting their team, but someone who defines themselves in opposition to Jewishness.

The moment is paired with the thoughts of a Jewish Feyenoord fan, who recalls a number of even more grotesque chants, including one which made reference to the gas chambers. He says that he finds himself in a difficult position, because on the one hand he also feels that as part of Feyenoord, the chants aren’t directed at him. But his identity does not get put on pause just because he is at a football match, so he has spent many years “fighting against” bigotry in the stands – whether it is deliberate or not.

The segment also examines the way in which shared identities can blind-side us to the worst intentions of our peers. Many people love their families unconditionally, and that makes it hard to confront the idea that their loved ones might be racists. No, grandad likes a racist joke, but that doesn’t make him a RACIST. Here, the Jewish fan rather naively suggests many Feyenoord fans do not understand what they are actually saying – when he confronts them on chants, he says they are mostly unaware of the concept of ‘antisemitism’, and implies they don’t really mean it. This strange piece of mental gymnastics glosses over the fact that while they might not know the name for it, many of them are making a conscious decision to take ownership of other people’s identities as Jews, and weaponise it to wound them as an ’other’. That is antisemitism by any other name – and it becomes more apparent with every time a group of Feyenoord fans engages with ‘anti-antifascist’ demonstrations that this is a problem that goes far deeper than some progressive fans are willing to admit. A similar segment examines homophobia on the terraces.

One short-coming in the film is that it does not manage to explore what the experience is like for women who follow Feyenoord. Feyenoord Vrouwen joined the women’s Eredivisie in the season this film was made, but does not receive a mention. Only founded two years ago, and playing its games at the Sportcomplex Varkenoord, rather than De Kuip, it would be interesting to see how fans of that entity feel about the shared identity of the club.

Despite this, in 20 minutes, Xausa seems to have done just about all she could to fit in all the fantastic and explosive contradictions of being a modern football fan. Rather than mark So Loud The Sky Can Hear Us down for this last note, then, I think it would be better to champion it for a feature-length outing. This is a brilliant piece of short-form documentary-making, but I think it would work just as well – if not better – with a longer running time. And with interest in the club peaking after De Trots van Zuid (The Pride of the South) recently claimed their sixteenth league title in the Eredivisie, this is arguably the perfect time to undertake such a project.

So Loud the Sky Can Hear Us is exactly what you would want from a documentary about football fan culture. It never shies away from asking uncomfortable questions, but still manages to get us to empathise with a subject we might not have cared about before, giving us a little taste of the electric feeling that football support can bring at its very best. The only problem I will have now is trying to find a venue willing to screen this film in Amsterdam.

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