'The Two Escobars,' on SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki, looks at the highs and lows of Colombian soccer during the nation's most challenging narco-trafficking era.

Two Zimbalists and 'Two Escobars'

Susan Gerhard August 27, 2010

Despite the best efforts of economists and explainers to turn sport into science, it appears to remain, for most fans, a beautifully base and inexplicable passion. The game is real; what surrounds it virtual. It's an arena where dreams, though crushed on a regular basis, continue to survive.

In Michael and Jeff Zimbalist's The Two Escobars, one Escobar, Pablo, infamous leader of a Colombian drug cartel, is facing what could be his final minutes, hiding underground as the inevitable posse of armed combatants approaches to take his life and end his stranglehold on the nation. How is he spending those moments? As described by a witness in this documentary, he is not praying to a god. He is intently following the fortunes of his favorite soccer team on a tiny portable radio.

Positive reviews for Michael and Jeff Zimbalist's The Two Escobars (now on SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki) have emerged from all points: the New York Daily News, the Hollywood Reporter, Al Jazeera, and perhaps most importantly from Sports Illustrated soccer writer Grant Wahl, who called it "the finest soccer documentary ever." It may be the finest soccer documentary ever, which is an achievement of particular note, because at first glance, it doesn't appear to be a documentary about soccer at all. But in telling the stories of an unseemly icon of narco-trafficking (Pablo) and the murder of a Colombian sport hero (Andres), if offers a surprise: It's the soccer pitch where the two lives converge. Many pitches actually, from private estates to a prison to the Rosebowl. It becomes a portrait of a nation pummeled by poverty, captivated by a sport, divided by an outcome, and soldiering on.

Many viewers will arrive at the film knowing about the man-hunt demise of Pablo Escobar and the chilling murder of Andres Escobar, who was killed in a Medellín nightclub a short while after returning home from a World Cup (1994) that his national team was positioned to possibly win, but lost in the first round to an unheralded U.S. team on an own goal scored by team captain Andres.

The Zimbalists found much more to both Escobar stories than what the media had already scripted.

"As we started to investigate the events of that fateful night when Andres went to the bar [and was murdered], we realized it wasn't a mystery about who pulled the trigger," said Jeff Zimbalist over the phone from his apartment in San Francisco. "In fact, in our impression, he was killed by society. In order to understand what happened to Andres Escobar, and  what happened to soccer and unity and national identity in Colombia, one had to understand this very secret and dangerous phenomenon called 'narco-fútbol.'"

Using a challenging storytelling strategy more common to fiction features, i.e., having two disparate lives that meet at an unlikely moment to create world-shifting impact, The Two Escobars argues that both Escobars, player and drug-kingpin/fan, were victims of drug cartel collapse. "Pablo was the vehicle we could use to talk about society and Andres was the vehicle we could use to talk about the role of sport," explained Jeff.

Both protagonists are complicated figures in a nation Jeff Zimbalist sees as largely mischaracterized."Our experience traveling in Colombia was such a positive one," he said. "We have a love affair with the country and with Latin America in general.  Part of our mission is to tell stories that are positive in places that are usually portrayed negatively."

The Zimbalists, sons of Latin American scholar and sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, came to the project not as sports enthusiasts, but as two brothers raised on thrilling stories of politically engaged travel that they heard from their father.  One such story involved  their father's midnight escape from coup violence in Chile, where he'd been studying the high-levels of productivity under socialism. Leaving under threat of death for his academic interests "might be a horror story to some," said Jeff. "But it was exciting to my brother and me in different ways. Latin America is such a tumultuous and shifting landscape."

Jeff Zimbalist's first feature, a documentary called Favela Rising that played festivals (including the San Francisco International) in 2006 and earned Zimbalist Best Emerging Director from Tribeca, follows a former drug trafficker who attempts to reform his community through music in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

This, his second, came about as he and his brother were working on the screenplay for a fact-based feature film on the first Latin American peace community, which was based in Colombia (that film is funded, in part, by a San Francisco Film Society Kenneth Rainin Foundation grant). The brothers —who alternate for-hire work with passion projects in their All Rise Films company—were asked to create a sports-in-social-context story for ESPN, but, after gaining access to an amazing cache of archival footage and interviews with key figures in the lives of Andres and Pablo Escobar, they realized they had a more theatrical-sized project on their hands.

"What's exciting about an investigative documentary is that you start in one place, and the tentacles start reaching out," said Jeff. "Everyone we talked to mentioned someone else to talk to and before you know it, you're inside a maximum-security prison with a man who's killed 250 people with his own hands telling bar stories."

While so many other films about Pablo Escobar that are in the works have either had a difficult time getting made (one by Oliver Stone) or not gained much traction after completion (a  documentary on Pablo Escobar and his son that played Sundance but hasn't yet arrived in the theaters), the Zimbalists' project has taken hold probably because it doesn't rely on the cliched narrative arc of a drug lord's demise, and wasn't wholly Pablo Escobar's story. While the connection between the Escobars Pablo and Andres could and should be considered a stretch initially, the Zimbalists show it is anything but.

Soccer, or "narco-soccer" emerged from the need to launder money and the deep love that certain narco-traffickers felt for soccer. Drug traffickers built playing fields, supported players and teams financially, and cared far too much about winning. Their influence resulted in both high-level play, and high-level consequences, such as the murder of a referee who made the "wrong" calls.

To some, Pablo Escobar was a hero. "There's just as large a population in Colombia that thinks Pablo was an angel as those that feel he's a devil," said Jeff. "Their emotion around what Pablo did for them, building them houses, giving them food, schooling and healthcare for their families is just as severe as those who lost innocent loved ones to car bombs and terrorism in the streets. We decided that it was important to tell as balanced a picture as we could of that era."

Reviewers have commented on the film's skilled, thriller-like pace; it's difficult not to notice the exceptional access and candid interviews as well. In all three of these areas, Jeff Zimbalist, who writes, shoots, and edits the films, gives most of the credit to his brother Michael, a trained actor with years of experience in Central America, who, he says, shaped the story and built inroads into the communities they needed to reach. The primary filmmaking concern of both brothers appears to be, broadly stated, social justice. Which, I imagine, gives them a unique view to an activity (professional sports), where, for the most part, there is no justice.

Jeff remembers missing entire seasons of his favorite sports teams in the '90s, when he was about to enter college and taking on new interests, but the murder of Andres Escobar, after Colombia's loss to the U.S. in the World Cup caught his attention. "It calls you back to reality, and you realize, in those moments, that sports are an extension of society."

"I think that this exercise, the film, was definitely proof for us that a place where whole countries unite—and fall apart—is the playing field."

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