INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Gertten on 'Becoming Zlatan' and the cold football world of Ibrahimovic

Adham Youssef and Mahmoud Moustafa, Thursday 17 Nov 2016

Ahram Online talks to Gertten, the co-director of film 'Becoming Zlatan', which screened during the 9th Panorama of the European Film, and looks into the Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic's road to fame and his link to Egypt

Zlatan (Photo: still from the film 'Becoming Zlatan')

Mixing football and a cinematic festival such as the Panorama of the European Film might seem highly odd, but co-director Magnus Gertten stood confidently while presenting his latest movie, "Becoming Zlatan," to the audience at Zawya cinema last week.

The documentary, which was produced in 2015, tells the story of the transformation of Sweden's mega football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic from a gifted teenager with a complex personality to the professional who joined Juventus in 2005 and kicked off his global stardom status.

The award-winning Swedish director stressed to Ahram Online he believes that the movie, which he co-directed with his brother Fredrik, is not only an independent production but it is also different.

"When it comes to the locker rooms, how many interviews do you see in the Barca, Manchester United locker rooms? It's a no-go area for people, very rarely interviews can happen there." The Gerttens are fans of their local town's team, Malmo FF, and at one game in 1999 they saw in the locker rooms of the club a tall teenage, Ibrahimovic, who hadn't yet started playing for the first team.

"He had a cocky attitude," Gertten recalls of the then 17-year-old striker whom they found interesting enough to follow and start filming.

“We were in the period before they just closed the doors, we were lucky and happened to film him."

Football star movies, funded by clubs or footballers, typically show either the sporting side of a player's career or their personal story in which they are viewed as "good guys."

"He [Ibrahimovic] is a human being. He is not only good. Nobody of us is only good. In the more commercial, corporate documentaries, the players are only good guys," Gertten said.

The movie was made three phases: Ibrahimovic's debut with Malmo FF, his move to The Netherlands with Ajax, and his transfer to Italy's Juventus.

The first two phases are screened in parallel as the young player struggles to adapt to the professional football world and his new personal life.

Becoming Zlatan
(Photo: still from Becoming Zlatan)

The Dutch experience

"There was a certain unique feeling about the material from Holland, which was important to the film, because the big drama was in Holland."

When Ibrahimovic moved to Ajax for a record fee in 2001 he was 20 and the scale of expectations of him took a toll on him. It was in Amsterdam that Ibrahimovic started to build his legendary status as a footballer. Gerttens could see that and hence, "We decided to stretch out the story over the Dutch experience in Ajax."

"And we were lucky to get people to talk about these years. Quite hard to get this kind of material. This is a world when you don't talk about your colleagues. Everyone is protecting each other. We wanted to get close to him; we wanted it to be emotional material."

Becoming Zlatan
(Photo: still from Becoming Zlatan)

An Egyptian touch

Ibrahimovic arrival in Ajax meant there were two young, extremely talented, and flamboyant additions to the team's frontline. One was the Swede. The other was an Egyptian: Ahmed Hossam Mido.

The competition, feud and friendship between the duo is a key aspect of the movie's Dutch phase.

Gertten traveled to Egypt to shoot with the attacker-turned-manager, Mido.

"We went to his restaurant and he was in a negotiation with a goalkeeper that he was going to buy for Zamalek at that time. We had to disturb him, asking him whether we can do the interview. I think he was really good. You can see that he has matured and became a wiser person."

The movie shows an infamous verbal clash between the two strikers which led to Mido throwing a pair of scissors at Ibrahimovic's face. The incident accelerated Mido's departure from the club, yet one man in Ajax stood by his side: Ibrahimovic himself.

“It was a bit embarrassing for him (Mido) but he told the story, and I complimented him for being brave enough and tell us exactly how it was. He suddenly became big in my eyes, as he can talk about a story like that. That was amazing of him."

The director could see a similarities between the duo. "I think there are winner types. There are some people who are ready to kill to win. Both I think are very individualistic. They have a hard time. It is actually strange that they are playing in a team sport."

"This was the paradox of it, and that is one of the paradoxes of football," he added.

Becoming Zlatan
(Photo: still from Becoming Zlatan)

Making a football movie

Gertten is more known for his political and music documentaries. But, it was 
Ibrahimovic's oft-called arrogant attitude that brought Gertten to the football genre.

"It is an insider film about the cold football world. But it is also a universal film about a young man struggling for success."

"It is not only about him. It is also about others. It is about a 19-year-old coming to Ajax, and the treatment you get by the media, or the team."

Is he really arrogant? "It is not merely arrogance. He is trying to protect himself in this very tough and cold world. That is his way of protecting himself."

"I think showing Zlatan elbowing people and being an arrogant and bad person, together with his good side, makes you realise this is a complete picture of who he is. This is the guy."

The director says he is not sure if he would like to make another football movie: "I'm happy that I will not do a football documentary for a while. I will go back to doing my music documentaries or my politics documentaries. It's almost easier to do a political documentary than a football documentary."

"The thing that goes with filmmaking is that you want to tell a story. To create a good story, there are some aspects that you need to have in the film, there has to be something at stake. It means that the person is on the way to something, and you will follow his journey, and this is how this film is made," Gertten explains.

"It is not interesting to show player who is has been doing everything. It is totally uninteresting. But what is interesting is when you don't know if will he break through or fall down in the system."

Becoming Zlatan
(Photo: still from Becoming Zlatan)

Ahram Online is the media sponsor of The Panorama of the European Film and of Zawya.

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