Zinedine Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait

This is 90 minutes (of course) of sheer hell when I saw it – even for my football (if Burnley counts) consultant who I took with me – so boring, at times, that a collective gnawing of arms seemed tempting to suggest. However, it was interesting in its attempt to profile an iconic modern footballer (its release almost as fantastically timed as his head-butt to generate useful publicity).

The filmmakers have art/arthouse credentials, and there is an intense focus on his every move, following throughout the match (Real Madrid/Villareal). He obliges the directors by being sent off near the end – but even this has a strangely passive quality that infects all the action, since he gets randomly involved in someone else’s argument.

It’s coming round to Cornerhouse on 29th September. I’m definitely going to send any of my students who are thinking of doing the Sport and the Media research option (OCR, similar to AQA’s Independent Study) – not because I don’t like them (!) but because I think it has enormous potential for discussion as far as sport and celebrity is concerned. Having seen Sam Taylor-Wood’s portrait of Beckham in the National Gallery (a really, far superior analysis of sports celebrities AND our relationship to them), the Zidane film is limited in its own ‘intelligence’ but something they can use as a case study.

I notice on imdb that it’s compared to ‘Football as Never before’ about George Best – I wonder whether there are any other useful companion pieces this new film could be put with?


  1. Roy Stafford

    The only film that comes to mind that might make some sort of comparison is Pele Eterno (2004) from Brazil, which was, I think, shown at Cannes this year. Universal have the rights so perhaps it will appear in the UK at some point. Most films about football (or footballers) are pretty dire. Nothing I’ve seen bears comparison with This Sporting Life, Lindsay Anderson’s 1963 film based on the novel by David Storey, who had actually played the game of Rugby League featured in the story.

    I’m sure there is a category of sports documentary that deals with the ‘celebrity’ figures of modern sport. Personally, I find the less well-known players much more interesting. The sports book everyone is raving about at the moment is My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes by Gary Imlach. Gary’s Dad was Stuart Imlach who played for Nottingham Forest in the late 1950s and, once, for Scotland. Out in paperback, this might prove a good antidote to the current celebrity obsession.


  2. Rona Murray

    There is a real variety of writing about the experience of a fan’s eye view of football – we are very in love with that, aren’t we? The whole idea of passing football (as a mass culture experience?) from father to son. It has that ‘real’ nostalgic role and now, this really strange, celebrity 21st experience. Footballers as art? (See Beckham in the National Portrait Gallery?)

    I think the two are in conflict? We don’t want to let that 3pm on Sat experience go but it’s in a completely different world. Sport in the media is definitely wider than ‘5-live’ on a Sat evening, isn’t it? There are competing audiences claiming football, especially once it moved from the back pages onto the front.


  3. Roy Stafford

    To answer your point about the change in the status of football, I confess to the position that wishes to just ignore all the modern bollocks about celebrities. I’ve supported two teams for over 40 years. If they win I’m elated, if they lose I can’t think about it. I don’t really care about anything else to do with football.

    Which brings me back to Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait, now that I’ve seen it. I saw a digital print on the big screen in Bradford and it was an interesting experience. Overall, I was slightly disappointed since I think it was rather confused in what it set out to do. As a piece of avant garde film, almost structural film, it was quite successful, if not particularly original. Because of the technology issues, I suppose you could argue that we haven’t seen anything quite like this before, but it was the sound that intrigued me most. I liked the music and the edits between ‘live sound’ and the various mixes representing how Zidane could choose what to listen to. I guess the 90 minute running time that matched the time Zidane spent on the pitch (plus a few minutes of the half-time break) is an element in the structural approach, but personally, I think it could have been shorter.

    If the film had operated simply as a structural exploration of sound and image in a relatively abstract sense, it would have made a more powerful statement for me. But it focused on Zidane and set up expectations about him in a narrative sense. We try to find out things about him, to ‘learn’ something about football and his importance in it. That seems to me to be a problem and to get in the way of the artistic endeavour. Football fans seem to be split on the film with some fascinated and some frustrated. I’ve seen claims that we see the game from Zidane’s perspective. We don’t. We see him as multiple cameras see him, but not in relation to the game going on around him. This is interesting of course, because it raises all sorts of questions about voyeurism — you could watch just one player in a match, but you wouldn’t see the game — and about the ways in which football is mediated by television.

    However, what the film doesn’t explore — what is unknowable unless you have read all the background about Zidane, is anything about the player himself or about Real Madrid. I think Real Madrid are a bit like Man Utd — the team everyone who isn’t a fan hates. Of course, United don’t really deserve that hatred, but Real were Franco’s team and that must still mean something in Spain. I’ve seen claims that you do learn about Zidane, but, I would argue, only if you already know something about his past. For instance, one IMDB user suggests that his constant foot stretching and dragging his toes on the turf is a response to ankle injuries. Perhaps the success of the film is that it does allow fans to engage with their idol in a different way — which is fine for them, but does it work for the rest of us?


  4. calvin

    It seems to me that this isn’t a film about football. The title gives that away; Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait, is a moving portrait of a man. As with any team sport -especially on television- the viewer is not allowed to watch a single player for any extended period of time. Baseball and Cricket are also good examples. This picture shows us what we don’t see; a man working as a part of a machine. He intently wanders, mostly, without being directly involved in the action. These athletes spend a large amount of time preparing to act and this picture conveys the isolation involved in such activities. The movie, in my opinion, is not boring at all. If you’re looking to watch a movie about football then yes, you’re in for a long and unsatisfying 90 minutes… on the other-hand, if you’re intention is to explore a meditation on the isolation of a man in the workplace, you’re in for a real treat!

    All-in-all it’s an excellent conversational topic, and that’s what effective art is all about. Kudos to you for posting about it.


  5. Roy Stafford

    Thanks Calvin

    What you say makes sense, but Zinedine Zidane is difficult to isolate as one man at work in a team. He is a star with all the cultural baggage of a Hollywood star in a feature film. It’s a while since I saw the film now, but your comment makes me wonder how different a film about a different player — just as skilled, but not a superstar might have been like.


  6. Rona Murray

    I agree that the idea of a portrait of a man as part of the machine works far more to make sense of this as an artefact – I can immediately see visual sequences that symbolise that relationship. You’re right – it is iconic, which reinforces the feeling (for me) that this is far more art installation, and not just because of Gordon’s background. It is meditative, comtemplative – even in the sound that places us in the different worlds of football being inhabited during the same 90 minutes.

    I can imagine sitting or standing in front of it for a considerable length of time in an art gallery. It would work much better as a ‘portrait’ there for me, like Taylor-Wood’s Beckham.

    As an aside, it was fascinating to watch the responses to the Beckham ‘portrait’ in the National, the discomfort with the intimacy created with an image we are so familiar with and yet really don’t know. Taylor-Wood’s 45 minutes of watching Beckham sleep, in medium close up, challenged that idea of ‘knowing’ the person – as we might believe we do through celebrity culture – effectively highlighted the falsity of that relationship. Most people stopped and stared, and usually looked around them before moving on – I couldn’t help thinking with a sense of embarassment about having been seen or caught being voyeurs. (Although we’re happy, of course, to let the media act as direct voyeurs on our behalf outside the gallery).
    I would have found it far more interesting to see (and hear) people’s responses to Zidane in that kind of context, particularly now I see a major theme from Callum’s posting.
    But I do still wonder about the context – as it was in a cinema, it was visually and aurally enhanced, but I would argue it wasn’t cinematic. (gauntlett thrown?!)


  7. calvin

    (firstly – I am so pleased to be discussing this picture. I was very lucky to have seen it, here in the states.)

    It’s difficult to call it cinematic, true… That the picture is having a significant amount of trouble getting theatrical distribution only reinforces that idea. But that may be us giving in to our traditionalist ideas. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that although someone might be able to sit n’ watch the piece in a gallery -10 mins here 15 there-, you really have to see it the whole way through (I’m not a fan, but consider Mathew Barney’s Cremaster.) You need to be sitting in a dark room with an excellent sound system (as was stated before, the audio is a huge part of the experience) so that you’re totally immersed in that world. It is an art piece that work’s best in a theater setting. It’s very ambient, and requires an amount of patience that most viewers aren’t exactly ready to exhibit, considering the subject matter, and especially if they’re able to just leave. Though a number of people left the screening I attended, most people walk into a theater with the intention of not moving while the film is playing. And that is very important for Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait.


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