In the Game

The latest documentary from Kartemquin Educational Films, In the Game profiles the girls’ soccer team at a large public high school on Chicago’s southwest side. To call it a sports movie, though, would be selling it short. Director Maria Finitzo uses the school’s soccer program to address larger issues about public education and social inequality in Chicago. As a school administrator informs us, more than 80 percent of the student body at Kelly High School (where the movie was shot) live around the poverty line. Not only that, but the school has been long underfunded, forcing teachers and staff to assist students with fewer resources than they need. Finitzo inspires warm admiration for the soccer team’s dedicated coach, Stan Mietus, who teaches his players to take pride in themselves no matter where they’re from. Yet Coach Stan’s lessons help only so much.

Finitzo follows three star players after they graduate, showing them as they struggle to stay in college and out of poverty. When I spoke with the director recently, she explained that making In the Game led her to realize that our society needs to do more to help kids succeed in the years after high school, and that the movie should be regarded as “a call to action.” (The film screens five times between today and next Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with Finitzo taking part in postshow discussions on Saturday and Sunday.)

Ben Sachs: What led you to make a movie about the girls’ soccer team at Kelly High School?

Maria Finitzo: The project originated as a story about Title IX [the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational program], and what was left undone [by its passing]. Title IX changed the landscape—not only for girls in sports, but also women in medicine, law school. But I’d read that girls of color were often left behind when it came to sports. I was interested in that, since one of the ways that kids can pay for college is with a sports scholarship. If you can’t play a sport or you’re not very good by the time you hit high school, then that avenue is closed for you.

I thought I was going to find that Kelly High School [whose student body is more than three-quarters Latino] was this school that didn’t do enough for the girls and the boys got all the resources, but that’s not what I found at all. It wasn’t as if the boys had everything [for sports] at Kelly and the girls had nothing—none of those kids had enough. Kelly High School is really dedicated to its students—everybody there does an extraordinary job of trying to educate them. It’s just that the resources for schools in communities of color are less than in other places. So the film became a story about equality, across the board.

It became clear to me that it would center on a coach who uses the game of soccer to keep girls engaged in life. He teaches them that there’s always going to be someone better than you, but you have to try your best anyway. Now this team lost all the time—they were not a winning team. And yet these young women were so resilient—they got a sense of sisterhood out of the experience of being on the team.

But as I continued to follow the players—first Elizabeth, then Maria, then Alicia—I saw that once they got out of Kelly, there was no team for them anymore. The circumstances of their lives overwhelmed them. They couldn’t figure out how to stay in school. All three of them went to junior college, but all three of them dropped out. Only Elizabeth got herself back in—in part, I think, because I said to her at one point that if she went back to college it would be a good ending for my film. She managed to get a lot of help to go back and get her two-year degree.

What drew you to each of these three girls?

Elizabeth, who I got to know best, has a great deal of family support. Her parents are very engaged in her life. So I think she had the resources to pick herself up after she dropped out of college. Maria had tremendous talent and dreamed to be an architect, yet she became overwhelmed by all the stress in her life. You see this in the film when she says that she has three jobs and finds it very hard to get motivated. She’s a missed opportunity who didn’t have to be. I think Alicia has a lot of strength. She’s pretty much on her own [after high school], and she’s doing really well in junior college, but then the issue of student debt comes up and she doesn’t know how to handle it. She’s only $5,000 in debt, but to her, it might as well be $5 million. Also she’s not even here legally—she’s undocumented. So she drops out.

I didn’t want to show the valedictorians at Kelly. I wasn’t looking for those girls. I wanted to pick three young women who had some leadership skills on the soccer team and who seemed motivated in school. Sometimes you see these films about the kids [at inner-city schools] who end up at Yale or Harvard, and it’s true that those kids exist. But there are also a lot of kids for whom it would be great if they could just get themselves to UIC, but they don’t know how.

Maria presents an architectural design project in In the Game.

People like movies about characters who beat the system. But there need to be movies about the system too, because most of us live in it.

At one point in the five or six years I was shooting, I remember reading this article in the New York Times about how hard it is when kids from poor communities get into colleges. They don’t know how to stay in school! They’re surrounded by all these kids that had so many more opportunities and resources to get them there. But they have no one back home to help them, and they drop out.

So the film turned out to be about staying in the game of life when the playing field is uneven. That scene where [the girls] play Whitney Young is a metaphor for this. Whitney Young is a fabulous school, those kids are coached really well, and the girls think they’re going to beat them. Because they don’t understand that they can’t even begin to compete. That’s what happens to kids who are at the poverty level and at schools that are underfunded—they can’t compete.

We hope the film shows that when you have a team, you can withstand setbacks. It’s when you’re on you’re own and have no team that it becomes a lot harder. And that’s what you see, how the girls struggle. There has to be a way of helping kids figure out who’s on their team when they get out of high school. I hope the film illustrates that we have this huge need, that there’s a population of kids who need more support. There need to be more programs that begin when they’re in high school, follow them as they get into college, and make them stay in college.

You must have accumulated a lot of footage after shooting for so many years.

Typically when I make a film, I first get a critical mass of funding, then I go off and I shoot a lot of stuff. But because I never had that critical mass of funding, I had to be more judicious in how I used my money [on In the Game]. So I never immersed myself in the story, shooting-wise, because I would have run out of money much quicker. And when you run out of money, you stop [shooting], and you wait until you can get more money, then you start . . . and you stop. That’s a really terrible way to make a film, but I limped along like that for a few years, until finally the MacArthur Foundation gave me a grant. That was a huge help to me—it told me that I had to pull it together now and find the story. This was also when the whole crisis at Chicago Public Schools started. I guess that was the “good” part of having waited so long. If I’d had the whole budget at the start, I would have shot for two years and never gotten any of that stuff.

The budget crisis comes about exactly halfway into the finished film. It’s almost like a signal that things are going to get harder for the subjects.

Right. It changes how everything’s going to be for them at school. Patrick Brosnan from the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council says in the movie that the schools serving the two largest Hispanic populations in the city were the schools that got cut the most—ten percent of the budget—and that this isn’t a coincidence. In Brighton Park, where Kelly High School is, a lot of families are undocumented, so they can’t vote. When that happened, I got this very organic way to illustrate that this is the system impacting the lives of the people who live here and the kids who go to this school, and they can’t doing anything about it.