Saturday, January 23, 2016

In Football We Trust: a film about football and the Pacific Islanders' dreams and disappointment

The Boomfield brothers are featured in the film that took four years to complete.
FOR THE NEXT two weeks after the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos winning their respective divisions Sunday (Jan. 24), football fans start zeroing in the ultimate sporting event, the Superbowl.

No doubt, there will be more than a few Pacific Islanders playing 
in that event, one of the most watched games in the world. For many Polynesians, playing in the National Football League has become their ticket to the American Dream. Even though Polynesians (Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders) make up only a half percent of the U.S. population, more than 200 Polynesians have played professionally in the National Football League (and in the Canadian Football League) — 28 times more likely than any other ethnic group. 

A documentary, In Football We Trust, will explore this phenomenon which some refer to  as a calling or a gift from God; others credit genetics, socio-cultural influences, or the push and pull of global sports capitalism. 

The reality is, though, only a few of them make it into the pros. For those who don't make it into the pro ranks, many face economic hardship. The lure of gangs becomes an attractive option out of poverty and disappointment.
UPDATE: The percentage of Pacific Islanders living in the U.S. has been corrected to .5 percent.
"I am first generation Tongan; born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah," says director Tony Vainuku. "My parents are both of Tongan descent, and followed their parents to Utah in the early 1970s, where their families practiced Mormonism. I didn’t have much growing up, poor was the norm, and education was never viewed as a 'better way' out of our circumstances."

The documentary transports viewers deep inside the tightly-knit and complex Pacific Islander community in Salt Lake City, one of the chief sources of the modern influx of Pacific Islander football players to the NFL. Shot over a four-year period, the film follows four young men striving to overcome gang violence and near poverty through the promise of American football. The film follows the Bloomfield brothers, Fihi Kaufusi, and Harvey Langi, both of whom like many Polynesian NFL players, had to face poverty, gang violence, and racism.

"The kids in my neighborhood looked up to notorious gang members and popular drug dealers," says Vainuku. "However, the Polynesians who played little league football with me found their role models in Junior Seau and Vai Sikahema, pioneers for our culture in the NFL. They made the “American Dream” appear reachable. We all relied on our size and speed throughout little league, hoping to one day play in the NFL."

Featuring interviews with current and former Polynesian NFL stars Troy Polamalu, Haloti Ngata, Star Lotulelei, and Vai Sikahema, In Football We Trust reveals how making it to the NFL is like winning the lottery: the odds are discouraging but the payoff can be irresistible.

Vainuku made the documentary with 
 award-winning filmmaker Erika Cohn. "In the film, we see our subjects strive for the promise (or at least the perceived promise) of the NFL," says Cohn in an interview. 

"The American Dream phenomenon fascinates our society and unfortunately professional sport plays a large role in this. I think we need to put our idealism in check. I believe In Football We Trust will illuminate how our country’s infatuation with chasing the American Dream can often leave people entrenched in the very conditions they are striving to overcome."

"We come from a line of warriors. Football embodies what our culture is," says Vainuku.
In Football We Trust will air on PBS stations, Monday, Jan. 25. Check local listings for times.

For more news about Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders, go to AsAm News.