By Hikabwa Chipande | October 24th, 2014 5 Comments
I settled into my seat at Fresh View Cinemas, Levy Park, in Lusaka, for the premiere of “e18hteam”—the first feature film about the history of football in Zambia—with more than a passing interest in the subject.
With generous funding from the FIFA João Havelange Research Scholarship, I have spent the past several years researching and writing the first academic history of football in Zambia as part of my doctoral studies at Michigan State University.
The cinema audience in Lusaka included football administrators, fans, members of the media, and VIPs like Shallot Scott, the wife of Zambia’s Vice President Guy Scott, and Roald Poulsen, the Danish coach who helped rebuild Zambia’s national team after the 1993 Gabon air crash that killed 18 supremely talented players.
The film is a partnership between Zambian producer Ngosa Chungu and Spanish writer, director and producer Juan Rodriguez-Briso. “e18hteam” focuses on Chipolopolo (Copper-bullets), Zambia’s national team. The narrative begins with Zambia’s famous 4-0 destruction of Italy in the 1988 Olympic tournament in South Korea. Then it turns to the tragedy that defined a generation: the 1993 Gabon air crash. The film goes on to explore the rebuilding of a new team, which (almost miraculously) reached the 1994 AFCON final against Nigeria. The narrative arc closes on an uplifting note as it documents the golden generation that won Zambia its first continental crown in 2012 in Libreville, just a few miles from the site of the crash nineteen years earlier.
The filmmakers creatively use historical techniques of interweaving the Chipolopolo story with multiple first-hand accounts of players and football administrators who participated in the events.
Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) President Kalusha Bwalya, arguably Zambia’s most successful player, AFCON-winning coach Herve Renard and his captain Christopher Katongo, football administrator Simataa Simataa, and the late radio commentator Dennis Liwewe share their experiences and memories and, in doing so, bring the documentary to life. The film also relies on journalists and former players from Spain, Argentina, and England to analyze events and connect them to similar episodes elsewhere, such as the 1949 Superga air disaster that killed the Torino team many consider Italy’s greatest ever.
Interviews are complemented by excerpts of key matches Zambia played in this period, which are interjected by the adrenaline-pumping 18 penalties taken in the 2012 AFCON final shoot-out against Ivory Coast. Kalombo Mwane, a popular Bemba gospel (or funeral) song (“Thank you, Lord”), is frequently used in the film, probably because the team sang it throughout the 2012 tournament.
The story of the past twenty years of Zambian football is meant to unleash deep emotional feelings. The indescribable sense of sadness from the 1993 crash. The inebriating euphoria of the 2012 title. In pursuit of this strategy, the filmmakers deliberately avoid dwelling on contentious issues, such as the causes of the Gabon crash. Even so, the film does reveal critical social and economic factors that influenced the Zambian government’s fateful decision to use a Zambian Air Force short-haul Buffalo cargo plane instead of a more reliable and more expensive commercial aircraft.
A powerful part of the documentary features Chanda Kristiansen [Kristensen], a local sports journalist, telling the story of how she flew with the doomed Zambian team to Madagascar [Editor’s Note: on their way to Mauritius] on the same military plane that crashed a few days later. Kristensen reveals how that plane was initially refused permission to land because the flight had not been cleared. It had to fly back to Malawi before returning to its intended destination. On the return flight, Kelvin Mutale, who scored all three goals in the game against Mauritius, told Chanda about his fears of using the military plane. This is an example of how the film does well to bring out and preserve marginalized voices of individuals like Mutale and others who died in the Gabon tragedy.
From an historian’s perspective, the methods and techniques of the Spanish and Zambian producers, such as their weaving and careful use of local people and foreign analysts as primary sources, recall the methods and approaches of professional historians. The film evocatively captures the powerful role football plays in contemporary Zambia, both as a form of urban popular culture and as a unifying force for the 73 ethno-linguistic groups that call Zambia “home.” In the process, it complements the small but growing literature on football in Zambia inside and outside the academy (Liwewe, 1985; Liwena, 2006; Darby, 2004; Chipande, 2009).
When the film ended, members of the audience could not hold back tears. After the screening, Chungu and Rodriguez-Briso held a discussion with the audience. They explained that their love of football and interest in preserving this rich Zambian history was the driving motivation behind doing the self-financed film. As the evening ended, the crowd in the cinema gave the filmmakers a rousing congratulatory applause.
While “e18hteam” could have engaged more with the voices and experiences of common people, including ordinary fans, it achieved its goals: to convey Chipolopolo’s journey from tragedy to glory and share and preserve this important part of Zambian history. As mass media have become a powerful tool for education about and in Africa, “e18hteam” brings to light similarities between historical documentaries and academic histories. This original film stands as both popular history and a helpful resource for teaching the recent history of football in Zambia.
Follow Hikabwa Chipande on Twitter at @HikabwaChipande.