INTERVIEW WITH DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER MEGAN SHUTZER.
love.fútbol came across Megan and her upcoming documentary entitled New Generation Queens: a Zanzibar soccer story while combing the twitterverse for impactful stories to share. Megan's documentary tells the story of the beautiful game through the lens of an all-female soccer team in the unlikeliest of places: Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous part of Tanzania off the coast of East Africa, where soccer is king but not for women to play. This a story about soccer, but more importantly, it's a story about the empowerment of women and their journey to challenge long-held stereotypes and express themselves freely. Megan took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about the documentary and her own relationship with the game of soccer.
1. What's your own personal relationship with the beautiful game? Did you grow up playing it or did you become interested in the sport through making the documentary?
From a very young age I began asking my parents if I could play soccer and my mom kept telling me to wait until I was old enough to play on the school team. I was very persistent though, and by the time I turned 9 she conceded. There was a local boys traveling team and I joined, in spite of some opposition from the other 9 year-old boys. They called me "the girl" for the first year or two. But playing on a boy’s team taught me to be aggressive and I was lucky to be playing soccer with a group of kids from mostly immigrant families (we had Brazilian kids, Colombian kids, a French kid, etc). They were really good. And this was not the soccer world I would have been exposed to years later at my school. I've played ever since and am now part of the Golden Gate Women's league in San Francisco.
2. Why Zanzibar and why soccer?
I met the New Generation Queens when I was working in Zanzibar. I came to Zanzibar in 2011 to set up a study abroad program for college students - and whenever I travel, I try to play a little bit of soccer. The two most prevalent things in local Zanzibari culture are soccer and Islam, so it was easy to find a game, but it was not easy to find a women's game. I started to ask if women played soccer in Zanzibar and eventually someone knew about the New Generation Queens. When I finally found them (they practice on the corner of a field at the Zanzibar prison complex, not an easy find) it was love at first sight. I connected with the team in a way that rarely happens across culture (especially with the power dynamics that come with being an American abroad in sub-Saharan Africa). I developed some real friendships with players on the team and their stories were compelling, as was the visual transformation that I saw every day when they would show up to practice covered (some, not all) and take off their hijabs to show colorful jerseys and personalities that I wasn't seeing/experiencing elsewhere in Zanzibar.
The New Generation Queens have been together since 2007-8 and they are the second "generation" of women's soccer in Zanzibar. Women's soccer in Zanzibar began in 1988 when a Swedish team, Tyresö , toured Africa. When they went to Zanzibar there was no team to play against because there was no women's soccer on the island. If women played, it was only in the streets as kids. The Zanzibar Football Association gathered all the "sportswomen" on the island, including Nasra Mohammed who was a badminton star. The Zanzibar team lost 16-0 but they describe it as a miracle to have the chance to play in public. Because they had permission to play in public that time, they seized the opportunity to start a team. The first team was called the Women Fighters and Nasra was the coach. When she was asked to assist with the Tanzanian National Team the Women Fighters fell apart. But soon after, the players regrouped as the New Generation Queens. Over the years there have been a few other teams that have tried to form and occasionally enough to have a lopsided women's league, but this one team (first the Women Fighters, now the NGQ) have always dominated.
3. Tell us more about the New Generation Queens. How long have they been together? Where are they from? What motivates them to play the game? Is there one player that stands out? What's their style of play?
When the NGQ were the only women's team on the island (this was the case when I first met them in 2011) they played all their games against men's teams and developed a scrappy style of play to adapt to difficult conditions and male opponents. The best player is a girl named Sabaha, who is known by all as Messi because she is left-footed and a skillful player. She is the daughter of two Koran teachers and wants to teach religion herself when she is done playing soccer. But for now Messi has her eyes set on the Tanzanian national team.
4. What's the response been like from the wider community with the documentary? Is there considerable backlash against the girls for playing or have people softened their views over time?
The movie will screen in Zanzibar in July, 2015. It will be in the Zanzibar International Film Festival on July 23, and I am working with that festival along with Save the Children, Coaches Across Continents and the local sports council to screen the movie in rural areas, accompanied by clinics/trainings for girls and coaches. I'm hoping that the movie has some subtle impact on cultural beliefs about women's soccer. Almost everyone there told me that "most Zanzibaris believe women's soccer is immoral" but then they would go on to say that personally they weren't all that opposed. So I think there is a great opportunity for a cultural shift. There still are some vehement believers but I think the majority are ready to be open to women's soccer. I'd also like the movie to give young girls the idea and confidence to play soccer - that this is an option and something that could give them great joy.
5. Any important lessons or moments of wisdom you've taken from this particular experience? What do you want the general public to get from your documentary?
The message the NGQ asked me to share/emphasize was their belief that you can be a woman, a Muslim and a soccer player - that these identities are not mutually exclusive.
I think that people around the world, in addition to people in Zanzibar can learn from that message. It can help us to complicate our understanding of Africa and of Islam. So rarely does the media cover stories from Africa that are not about poverty and crisis. Even more rarely are they told by Africans, let alone African women - or Muslim African women. These voices deserve to be heard and their message is one of inclusivity, empowerment and commitment to both sport and religion. I hope the public gains an interest in the region, that their views on Africa are complicated and that they have a respect and admiration for the NGQ.
CHECK OUT the link below for more information about Megan upcoming screenings of the documentary: http://www.newgenerationqueens.com/screenings/