On November 28, 2016, a plane carrying the Chapecoense soccer team crashed near Medellín, Colombia. 71 of the 78 passengers were killed. This included journalists, coaches and trainers, and all but three of the team’s players.
Although Chapecoense had long been seen as an afterthought in the Brazilian soccer scene, they rocketed into the Latin American consciousness by securing a place in the Copa Sudamericana finals in 2016, the second-most prestigious tournament in South America. Chapecoense was on their way to the first leg of the match, by far the most consequential game in the 40-plus year history of the club, when the plane went down. The crash made international headlines, and the team was honored throughout the global soccer community.
Soon after the crash, documentary filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist began shadowing the team’s administration, surviving players, and the new team as the club began to rebuild. The Zimbalist brothers established themselves as premiere sports documentarians with their ESPN “30 for 30” entry The Two Escobars in 2010, and Nossa Chape furthers this legacy. As they did with The Two Escobars, the Zimbalist brothers used the Chapecoense crash to demonstrate the transcendent nature that sports often play in society.
In an interview with Cinema Escapist’s Leo Schwartz, the Zimbalist brothers discuss how they were able to obtain such close access to the club, competing interests during the filming process, and the power of sport in rebuilding after a tragedy.
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How did you conceive of the movie? You were able to start filming pretty soon after the crash happened, so when did you first learn about it and decide you wanted to make a documentary?
Mike: Jeff and I learned about the accident when everybody else in the world did. I live part-time in Medellin, and I’ve spent many years living and working in Latin America—particularly in Colombia and Brazil—so we were following the story closely. Fox Sports actually had a number of their journalists on the plane who passed away. They reached out to me and Jeff and expressed interest in doing a documentary on the response from the team and the potential of rebuilding.
It hadn’t even been determined at that point whether they would continue or close their doors. This was just a couple weeks after the crash in December of 2016. We connected with our co-director Julián Duque and had a number of conversations with Chapecoense. We explained who were were and what our intentions were and why we were different than the news media, and they agreed they wanted to participate and tell the story. They felt it would be a meaningful way to honor those who had passed away.
By the time everyone had showed up at Chapecó at the club facility, our cameras were rolling. The initial plan was to film for just a month up until the team’s first game. As the week’s went along, it became very clear to us there were a number of complex dynamics that were still developing—unfinished threads that we needed to continue filming. Fortunately the subjects and club and Fox Sports were all on board for that, and we ended up in production for the better part of last year.
What was their first reaction to the idea of the project?
Jeff: They were a little apprehensive at first, which I think is natural if you’re approached by a documentary film crew asking to reveal intimate details of your life. In any circumstance I would understand some apprehension, but particularly so after a tragedy like this when emotions are so challenging and delicate.
The big difference that Mike is referring to is when other news outlets came and went, we were still there. That commitment and willingness to live with it and be there for the long haul meant a lot and was significant. There was a general interest across the different subjects, from the players to the families of the deceased to the club itself in getting the story out there. People expressed to us it felt like a meaningful way of honoring the deceased by telling their story and telling the story of a community rebuilding in their name. There was an interest in doing that.
We were transparent that this would not be a fluff piece and would not be ceding editorial control. We felt the rawness and authenticity of telling this story as it actually unfolded would probably increase the reach and impact of the story. The subjects were ultimately convinced of that and opened up their lives to us.
I think it also mattered that we were offering a meaningful platform to release the film. Fox, who had lost—as Mike mentioned—some journalists on that flight. Mike and our co-director Julian and I had all done a number of international soccer work in the past that goes beyond sport and talks about the impact of sport on society and psychology. Because of that, there was some confidence that came from looking at work we had done in the past, thinking we were going to make a piece of balanced journalism that represented the complete story and multiple points of views.
Going off what you said that there was clearly different interest from different parties being filmed, you clearly see that at different points in the film, especially with the surviving players and families of the deceased’s interests diverging with that of the team’s administration. Did that ever manifest in filming? Did you ever get pushback when you were filming those very raw moments and people in the documentary realized it was not going to represent the interests they were trying to get across?
Mike: I don’t know that we got pushback per se—I think it was a process from the very beginning. It was the entire community that came to participate, but as Jeff mentioned, as they saw us there day in and day out and filming with their colleagues, their friends, and their family, people really opened up to it. In the initial weeks, there were meetings and homes that were not open to us, but as time went on, we really became fly on the wall presence that people were comfortable with. People saw our commitment was one hundred percent and that really went a long way.
As far as the diverging interests, our interest as filmmakers going into the project was to look into this question of how a family or community responds to the loss of loved ones. We found these two divided camps around this question. Many were caught in between—including many of the players on the 2017 team—around this question of do we want to remember and honor the memory of the deceased at every step of the way, or do we want to push forward with our own lives and write our next chapter. Ultimately, we were as surprised as everyone that the two camps agreed that perhaps neither of their philosophies was better than the other, and that the more important thing was to remain unified, which of course was the value that was most upheld by those who had passed away.
I know both of you have worked on the theme of international soccer, with The Two Escobars. How did you first became drawn to this subject?
Jeff: We’re definitely drawn to stories where sport becomes a mirror for society. Sport becomes an opportunity for us to look at ourselves through that lens and understand both in this case psychological patterns and societal patterns and also opportunities to talk about the impact and the reach of sport on our lives. This one felt like it squarely into that theme. In this case, there was something really universal in understanding how best to grieve. That’s often an individual process in all our lives—we’ll have to figure out how to deal with the loss of a loved one—but also increasingly in society these days unfortunately there’s a lot of mass tragedy. To expand that tragedy and say, how do we best grieve as a community, or how do we best live as a family or as a collective, was what interested us. That theme and that narrative really drew us in.
It seems like in both those projects, sport isn’t just a mirror but also aggravates the grieving process. In this case, obviously there’s a grieving process, but once the team starts to lose, people begin to focus back on team’s performance itself rather than the tragedy. How does sports warp the grieving process?
Jeff: There’s the fans’ perspective, which is that sports is catharsis and the stadium is the invitation to explore or to express your deeper emotions, whether that be at the peak, your joy, or at the valley, your pain or frustration. That would be an opportunity for the fans to channel some of what they’re experiencing of the loss through the sport. But that’s quite different for the players, because the goal is to pick up where their buddies left off and to continue their journey in their stead, which is a more symbolic use of the game. To win for the fallen is a really different use of sport in their process.
For the community—for the mayor and the club and the administration, to use sports to unite a city in a time of really delicate division is a much larger macro canvas. Our goal with the film was to try to bring the audience into those various perspectives and look at the vehicle that sport provides for each one of those groups or constituents.
Mike: I would just add to that, as Americans it’s sometimes hard for us to understand. Particularly soccer or football is integrated into the culture and society of other countries at a level that we really don’t have. You see this for example in the instinctual response of the community to go to the stadium the morning they all learned of the plane crash. It’s a meeting place. That really doesn’t have much to do with sport. It’s a part of the fabric of society at a level where the lines are blurred. A lot of Americans look at the stadium as a place that has a hard line drawn where it’s just a game. You go in, there’s some entertainment, and then you leave. In other countries, it’s hard to even call it sport independent of culture.
Mike: Yeah, from Northampton.
What first got you interested in themes of Latin America and Latin American sports?
Mike: Our father worked for many years in Latin American economics, so we both grew up with his stories of travel in Latin America. We spent our summers growing up doing social service programs in various countries—rural communities throughout Latin America. Then I lived in Mexico for four years, Jeff lived in Brazil, and we both lived in Colombia and Brazil, so it’s been a big part of our lives.
My last question is about your filming technique. There were some really beautiful drone shots throughout the movie—has technology changed the way you’ve approached documentary film making since you began your careers?
Jeff: For sure: the ability to shoot multi-camera, and the ability to find local crew. Both are really helpful in a film like this. It was a sprawling scope of a project. We were in Chapecó pretty consistently throughout the year. We also were traveling with the team throughout South America and to Europe and Spain. We were coordinating various different international crews and local crews for all of these shoots. To have the technology that available in all these parts of the world was crucial for a project like this.
Drones are great. You don’t want to overuse them obviously, but this is a film that is about planes to a certain extent. That bird’s eye view is symbolic, and there is a lot of importance to the way the geography works into the story: the fact that Chapecó is far from all the major cities and came out of the jungle. Our initial drone shot comes out of the jungle into the city, representing that it is a small town that was able to make a name for itself on the international stage. Drones help us do that: to compare Chapecó to more developed cities as we traveled with them, and to show the perilous mountains where the plane did meet its fateful end. It was really helpful to have that perspective from the air.
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Nossa Chape is now showing in theaters.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Note: You can read a review of Nossa Chape on Cinema Escapist here.