Four years ago I was sitting in my office on 26th street and read an article about Hapoel Beer Sheva, an Israeli football club. The team was mixed of Jews and Muslims and had the first woman owner of any football club in Israel. I thought to myself, “I bet there’s a really great movie about this.” But to my surprise there wasn’t. I decided to make it. Here’s my story about directing and producing PLAYING FOR PEACE.
PLAYING FOR PEACE, or משחקים למען השלום, follows two star players on Israel’s three-peat championship-winning football club, HaPoel Be’er Sheva. One player, the team’s captain, Elyaniv Barda, came back to his home city after years of playing in Europe. At the time, HaPoel Be’er Sheva hadn’t won a championship in 40 years. Barda took it upon himself to bring great players to the team to “bring it back to its glory of the ’70s.” The other, Maharan Radi a Muslim player from a village called Sulam in the north of Israel, joined the team. Prior to that, he faced racism in the league. One match, while on the pitch, he heard racist chants sung in his home stadium. Following that match, his team’s bus was spray-painted with, “death to Arabs.” But when I asked him, he said the change in teams had nothing to do with the racism he faced, that he wanted to let his football game speak for itself, and not to bring religion or racism into the mix. (More on this later.)
On Friday, Playing For Peace will have it's TV premiere on ערוץ הספורט (the Israeli sports channel) at 17:00 Israeli time! Tomorrow, 4/22, Mahran Radi and I will be on the sports talk show, Migrash Patuach (Open Field) via Zoom together at 21:45 (Israeli time) to talk about the film. I am so happy that the message of coexistence, love and peace will be shared during this time.This project has been a labor of love for the past three years. In many ways, I have grown so much with the film, and it is exhilarating to have a national audience see this message. None of this could have been experienced if I didn't just "go for it" with the support of so many friends, family, and mentors behind me and a part of this.For my friend's and family in the U.S., where our festivals and screenings have been postponed, we're working on a way for you to see it as well. Stay tuned!Huge thank you to everyone who was a part of this who it could not have happened without, Shosh Aloni, from Sports5 who has been a major supporter of the film and helped me with access and getting it on TV. Alon Maor, the amazing DP who made the film look beautiful. Oren Sarch, the editor who went above and beyond with his contribution. And my new music composer, Obediya W. Jones-Darrell, who created a whole new score for the entire film (some of which you can hear in this trailer). Along with many, many others throughout this journey.And of course my husband, Alex Sabol who had been a part of this since the day we met, and listens to me worry endlessly and encourages me no matter what. And my mom, Tamar Yerushalmi Thomas, who has supported me in any way she can since this was just an idea. Finally, to the people of Hapoel Beer Sheva FC who are experiencing a lot of change right now, I hope this manages to inspire you for the future.
Posted by Playing For Peace on Tuesday, April 21, 2020
The film follows Barda, Radi, fans, coaches, and the owner at the time, Alona Barkat, as seemingly the whole city of Be’er Sheva roots for their beloved team to advance further than any other Israeli team has before in Europe’s UEFA Champions League. While football is exciting and even heartbreaking at times, PLAYING FOR PEACE is about much more than just the game.
I have no doubt that if people watch this, and come into this house, this family, and see how we coexist… there’s a possibility that from here, we’ll get to a place… through sports, the most popular thing in the world, that can lead to love and honor between people.
– Maharan Radi
When I started this documentary, I was 26-years-old and living in Brooklyn, NY. I didn’t follow Israeli football and had never even heard of HaPoel Be’er Sheva. So how did I end up directing this film? Let me explain…
I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts. I had a dual-citizenship with the United States and Israel, spoke fluent Hebrew, and visited my family every year, sometimes spending the entire summer in Israel. My middle school, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, had only one other Jewish student that I knew of, and definitely no Israelis. This had a strong impact on my relationship with Judaism and my Israeli identity. I felt I needed to hold onto it tightly and always do my best to explain my culture to my peers.
One day in seventh grade, my Geography teacher, Ms. Smith, played a documentary film called PROMISES that would deeply impact me. The film followed 7 Palestinian and Israeli children as they met and had a conversation. I remember watching the film and sobbing in my class, being so deeply moved by the kids who were exactly my age. My teacher came over to comfort me by putting her hand on my shoulder. After that, my peers and I engaged in the first conversation that I can remember ever discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something that was part of my life, even if only from afar. That day, I knew I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker, so I could have the same impact.
Fast forward 15 years, and there I am reading an article about HaPoel Beer Sheva a few weeks after my grandfather passed away. I was working on a documentary about crimes against our oceans, Executively Produced by Robert Redford. I loved it but was looking for a story that I could tell to honor my grandfather’s memory and fulfill my lifelong dream of directing a documentary film about Israel.
My grandfather, Rahm Yerushalmi, was born in Jerusalem in the 1920s, spoke Arabic and Hebrew fluently, and played soccer professionally. He had a huge impact on my life and was one of the main reasons I loved Israel. He always shared his vision of peace with me, and always told me, “your home is here, in Israel.” I have memories of going into Arab villages with him to buy olives and meat for our camping trips and listening to him speak Arabic in awe as we tasted pita together.
So through some connections, I reached out to HaPoel Be’er Sheva, and pitched them my idea. To my surprise, they told me, yalla (Arabic for “hurry” or “let’s go,” adopted into Hebrew), come to our game on February 7th. I had one week to raise the money I needed for the production of the film. Through crowdfunding, 98 people contributed to my campaign to raise $13,500.
When I got to Israel to start filming, meet the players, the coaches, and the fans, I knew this would be a special story. But after my first time meeting Maharan Radi, I was afraid it might be one I would not be able to tell.
I was waiting for him outside the locker rooms of Turner Stadium, where friends and family wait for the players to come out after their game is over. We only had a few minutes to speak and plan a time to meet and shoot the next day in Sulam. After a minute of talking, I’ll never forget how he told me, “I’m happy to film with you, but I do not want to talk about anything political.” My heart skipped a beat. I wanted to show American and international audiences how peace IS possible between Muslims and Jews, “and now my main character doesn’t want to talk politics??” I thought to myself, “I’m screwed.” But nevertheless the next day my crew and I headed up to Sulam.
We said we would meet at 12 noon, and I got there an hour early (how American of me) to film some b-roll of the k’far. Maharan asked me to call him when I was about an hour away to give him a heads up but when I called a few times, he didn’t answer. I thought it was a bit strange but went on to film the beautiful trees that were flowering, the people walking by, and even a quick shot outside a mosque at the entrance of the town. An hour, an hour and five minutes, an hour and 15 minutes go by, and still no call from Maharan. I look at my crew, three Israeli men that I had just met the day before, worried that I took them all the way up to Sulam for no reason.
“Let’s just film a little more of the town,” I said, hoping my phone would ring at any second.
We start to shoot again and all of a sudden I hear a voice.
“What are you doing?” I turn around and I see a group of four men come up to me. One of them looks like a Sheikh, the others… just looked kind of… intense.
“Making a film about Maharan Radi,” I said. After what seemed to be the longest pause of my life, one of the men said, “Maharan Radi? Why didn’t you say so! I am his uncle, this is his Sheikh, and we’re standing right in front of his grandma’s house!”
I took a sigh of relief and asked if one of them could finally get him on the phone. Five minutes later, Maharan showed up with a huge smile on his face, apologizing for not getting back to me.
“Are you ready?” he said. “Let’s go,” I said.
I hopped in Maharan’s car and we took a 2-minute ride to get to his parents’ house. I knew this might be my only chance to talk with him before we filmed him meeting with his parents. I gave him the best explanation I could of why I wanted to film with him, and all of a sudden, he starts to talk. He spoke about his religion, himself as an athlete, how he always wanted to let his game speak for itself, and how he felt that he wasn’t that special for getting along and being close with his Jewish-Israeli teammates, that this is how everyone should be. Then I realized, not only does Maharan have a lot to say, he has been waiting to say it. And that it is the biggest honor of my film career to be here to experience it.
We filmed with Maharan that day for hours and hours. His final interview of the day went so long that when we started it was bright and sunny out and when it ended we struggled to light the shoot because it was so dark out. I remember standing outside his mosque, as he shared how his religion taught him to love and honor people, and not hate, and I started to get choked up, barely being able to get my next Hebrish question out. Knowing that even though he didn’t like to be called special, Maharan had a message for the world that stood out to me amongst so much hate we listen to today. Not just between Jews and Muslims, but between various groups that divide us all over the United States, all over the world.
To hear Maharan’s message and watch Playing For Peace, check your local listings on PlayersTV through Samsung. The film is currently airing there. It premiered at the International Peace and Film Festival where it received the highest award of the 91 films screened from 55 countries across the globe. It had been scheduled to be in other festivals and screenings which have since been postponed due to COVID-19.
To find out when those festivals were postponed to, you can visit www.playingforpeace.com.