Utah-based filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn come from different professional backgrounds – Tony, who comes from a culture of Polynesian traditions and a family of athletes, once played football himself before shifting into multimedia production, while Erika’s filmmaking background has seen her produce films about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Lebanese-Israeli war of 2006. Both of them brought that diverse background, as well as their long familiarity with Utah culture, together to make the new film In Football We Trust.
Their documentary, which premieres on PBS Monday, January 25 at 10pm [check local listings], explores the struggles of four student-athletes to overcome gang violence and near poverty through the promise of American football. It was compared to Hoop Dreams, except for Polynesian football players, by Matt Goldberg in Collider, who added:
“In Football We Trust isn’t about trusting in the ‘nobility’ of the game or using it as a metaphor for life. It’s a sport that’s become part of a minority’s culture, and this documentary gives us a unique insight into that culture. That’s more powerful than seeing who gets the most touchdowns.”
Tony and Erika both took a timeout to talk to us about the genesis of their film and the themes they wanted to explore.
Why did you want to make In Football We Trust?
Tony: I am first generation Tongan; born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. My parents are both of Tongan descent, and followed their parents to Utah in the early 1970s, where their families practiced Mormonism. I didn’t have much growing up, poor was the norm, and education was never viewed as a “better way” out of our circumstances. The kids in my neighborhood looked up to notorious gang members and popular drug dealers. However, the Polynesians who played little league football with me found their role models in Junior Seau and Vai Sikahema, pioneers for our culture in the NFL. They made the “American Dream” appear reachable. We all relied on our size and speed throughout little league, hoping to one day play in the NFL.
Yet, it was my uncle, Joe Katoa, who stood out among us. Beginning at age six, his life was told through a football highlight reel. He became an All-State high school linebacker and a top college recruit for Nebraska, Michigan, Utah, and BYU. Joe’s football successes gave our family something to be proud of, and more importantly, hope. Tragically, after high school Joe lost his father to a rare disease and with that, his drive to play football. Having dedicated twelve years to football, opportunity beyond the sport seemed nearly impossible. Joe’s parents had never expected him to hold a job and his coaches ignored his academic challenges, as long as he stayed eligible. Joe spent the next ten years of his life in prison, becoming another tragic story for our family.
Inspired by Joe’s story, I began searching for an opportunity to address our childhood experiences and an avenue to critique the role that football played in our lives.
Erika: I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, and played sports through high school. I really identified with the highs and lows of competitive athletics and felt that using sports as a catalyst to address a larger societal issue was key to reaching a wide audience. Growing up I witnessed the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Pacific Islanders and the inherent racism that this community experiences. I felt that our film could be a very important look into the community and hopefully express new insights about their lives and the issues that they face.
When my partner, Tony, first pitched this idea to me, I was inspired by his passion and commitment to accurately representing his culture on the big screen. Then I met our four subjects, whose rare vulnerability and charisma deeply touched me and I knew their stories needed to be told. I remember being struck by Harvey Langi when he said, “I am just a kid in high school, I’m just a kid,” while trying to deal with the overwhelming pressure and familial expectations to lift his entire family out of near poverty, by becoming an NFL star. As a filmmaker, I am fascinated by the intersection of religion, culture, and identity. Throughout the filming, the tension between religion, culture, and the new-immigrant experience in America kept coming up, and I really wanted to tell that story.
In the film, we see our subjects strive for the promise (or at least the perceived promise) of the NFL. The “American Dream” phenomenon fascinates our society and unfortunately professional sport plays a large role in this. I think we need to put our idealism in check. I believe In Football We Trust will illuminate how our country’s infatuation with chasing the American Dream can often leave people entrenched in the very conditions they are striving to overcome.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Erika: Initially the subjects trusted that Tony would have their best interest at heart, as he was from their same culture and personally identified with what they were going through, As time went on, showing them our commitment and dedication to the project helped them understand how passionate we were.
Do you think there’s an unrealistic expectation of Polynesian American student athletes (especially from non-Polynesians) that adds to their burden? The history and track record in pro football given the small percentage of population is so impressive but has that in a sense made it harder to see other options?
Tony: Yes, definitely. First of all, knowing Polynesian youth have reputation of being talented in the sport and physical, fast for their size, I think a lot of times as soon as they hit high school, or even much earlier, as soon as Pop Warner football, they’re approached by coaches and parents of other players, expecting them to play football. Pitching scholarships and the support. It starts really early. My uncle, who inspired this film, was supported by a lot of different, well-off families to play little league and Pop Warner football, not just high school. It’s interesting because that film The Blind Side [based on real-life story of Michael Oher], we see stories like that all the time for Polynesian kids in Utah… in the expectations, the pressure to do well, and as a way for them to have something positive in their life, and keep on track in school. But a lot of times the sport takes over and football becomes a priority over school.
Speaking of, the film gives the sense that Utah schools are supportive of these students bringing their culture into the classroom and on the field — has that always been case or a recent development? How does this compare to other ways Polynesians are treated in these communities?
Tony: As Polynesians continue to grow in population in schools, the traditions will be more accepted. As far as the “haka” chant, the war dance you see them doing, that’s become popular in football in general. Along with tribal tats. You have the quarterback for the 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, tatting himself with tribal tattoos and he’s not Polynesian. You have African Americans taking on some of these traditions, the tattoos and the warrior chants get more adopted by football.
Did you have favorite players growing up?
Tony: The ones who stood out, the ones I could identify with, were Seau and Sikahema (who’s in the film). When those players started making a name for themselves in the NFL, as a kid from this community where your only role models are drug dealers or nothing else, you start seeing these players as a dream and a way out.
Erika: I grew up in a family that loved the Broncos, though I didn’t have a favorite player. I’ll be honest, I was more of a baseball fan.
Would you let your own kids play football? Did making this film change how you look at the sport for kids and teens, positively or negatively?
Tony: It’s a complicated question for me. I love so much about football, I love the camaraderie that it promotes, I love that it can be a positive alternative it provides to things a lot of kids can otherwise get into in their idle time. But the main reason why I wouldn’t is all the recent studies around CTE [Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease stemming from repeated brain trauma]. That’s a no-brainer, as it were. Why would you put the most precious thing these kids have been given, their brains, in danger? That would be more than the competitiveness. Football can be a positive thing, aside from the CTE worries, as long as kids know what they’re getting themselves into. It can be a vehicle into opportunity and success, as long as you’re the driver.
Erika: I wouldn’t let my kids play football, though I love the game. I think the film deepened my love and appreciation for sport, the physical and emotional outlet it provides for youth, and, yes, the sense of camaraderie it creates. However, the film also made me more critical of the pressure we place on youth athletes. We as a society grind the fun out of the sport early on.
Do you feel these student-athletes you talked to understood the odds? And the need for having other possibilities in their life if it doesn’t work out?
Tony: You know what, some of them do and some of them are taken advantage of and may not understand exactly how the system works. You’ll find a lot of these students have several coaches who are their teachers, too, and I don’t think they understand the dangers of that conflict, how that’s ultimately being used against them. So in some ways they’re being taken advantage of and in other ways I think they understand what football has to offer them. I just think they don’t always understand how much they are giving up or the cost of that, in order to play the sport and possibly make it to NFL.
What discussions would you like to see people have after viewing the film?
Erika: I would love to see people talking about parental expectations for their kids, societal pressures that are placed on young athletes, and an overall critique of the American Dream as we see manifested in the film. I hope this film also provokes dialogue about where the football industry is headed, increases understanding about Pacific Islander cultures and combats the blatant racism that many new immigrant communities face.
Tony: I think for people outside the culture it’s important to see the story behind this culture that is in some ways new to Americans. But there are a lot of things that are relatable, like communicating with your kids, the pressures they are under, it’s a story for parents in general. I hope it gives a voice to the youth. I hope that parents are able to pull that message from this and that youth are able to identify with how much these athletes are sacrificing, the risks they’re taking, and the odds they’re up against.
You know just one of the student-athletes in the film, Harvey Langi, is still pursuing the dream of playing in the NFL, and he had pretty much every single thing end up going for him, in the film. Whereas the other 3 don’t end up doing as much.
So how is Harvey doing these days?
Tony: He’s still at BYU and he has one more year to go and then he’ll enter the NFL draft. So he has a decent chance of going to the NFL. After his final year there’ll be more of a sense of where he’ll go in the draft, and then where he’s drafted [in Spring of 2017.]
What are your three favorite films?
Erika: So many films have moved us, from the classics to the films made by our peers and colleagues, with whom we exchanged cuts for feedback. I love being absorbed in character-driven, cinema verité films, especially Kim Longinotto‘s…her approach has inspired my work.
What projects are you planning on working on next?
Erika: I have two documentaries in production and a feature in development.
Tony: I just finished a narrative screenplay adaptation of In Football We Trust that I’m turning into Sundance Labs in February. And then I’m also working with the Seau family on possibly doing a film about his legacy. I’m really close with Sidney (his daughter) and her family, and they’re very supportive of me doing this. So I’m going into the narrative feature world after seven years of working on In Football We Trust. Kind of want to do a quicker process this time around.