To some, “trafficking” might seem a melodramatic word to describe the movement of young African soccer players to Europe. But it’s the right word. Sometimes, it works out, such as in the case of Chelsea’s Michael Essien or Manchester City’s Yaya Toure. But too often, these displaced teenagers looking for a better life do not reach the fields of the game’s cathedrals. Instead, they end up on the streets.

Soka Afrika, a film directed by Suridh “Shaz” Hassan and produced by Sam Potter and Simon Laub, turns an unsentimental eye on these difficult truths, telling the stories of two young African players’ adventures in Europe and letting the viewer judge the situation. K+S recently chatted with Laub about objectivity in the real world, the realities of trafficking, and a hope for the future.

K+S

Soka Afrika is an impressive endeavor. You follow two young players over two continents. Did you know what you were going to do from the beginning or did the project evolve as you went along? How long was the process from start to finish?

Simon Laub

We started with a fairly clear outline of what we wanted, but as in all good documentaries, we had dispense with any preconceptions of what we expected to find and to allow the film to breathe and develop in its own way. In terms of characters, we researched and followed many more than those who made it into the final cut, but it became clear fairly quickly who would be our prime focus; their stories were exceptionally engaging.

Our final characters had incredible stories that simply could not have been scripted or predicted, and although we knew examples of what was out there, we were very fortunate to discover such amazing people and were fascinated and privileged to capture their lives unfolding.

From pre-production to completion the project took just over two years

K+S

The film is praised for its objectivity despite dealing with a difficult subject. How did you maintain that as a filmmaker, and how did you ensure that would come across in the final cut?

Simon Laub

Our intention from the outset was to be as impartial as possible. We had no desire to point fingers or be judgmental. We recognized that the subject matter was too difficult and far-reaching to reduce to simplistic black and white viewpoints. We decided that our approach would be to present what we saw as the realities of two young African footballers pursuing their dreams and the many obstacles they faced from 2009 to the present day.

We made a decision not to force anything down our audience’s throats or to play to their sympathies but rather to take them on a journey with us, to submerge them in this world and allow them to draw their own conclusions. Our approach was to treat viewers as intelligent onlookers who rather than having their hands held, when furnished with appropriate information would grasp some of the intricacies and harsh realities and ideally would begin to ask questions themselves and start a debate.

The schoolboy’s dream of sport taking them from rags to riches is universal as is the corresponding responsibility of adults to ensure this dream is protected from exploitation. We had no doubt that with such rich subject matter the audience would respond in the right way, and so far, thankfully, this has proved to be the case.

K+S

What was the biggest difficulty you faced while filming?

Simon Laub

There are many challenges filming across so many locations and over such a long period, but the main one has to be achieving the correct level of intimacy with your subjects. Especially when dealing with such delicate topics, it is of utmost importance that characters can relax in front of the camera and that they develop enough trust in you to let their guard down. Particularly with adolescent footballers it can be difficult to get them to forget they are on film but this is something that is really helped by shooting over a long period. Ideally we need to be immersed in their day-to-day lives such that they simply accept our presence, if not forget we are there entirely.

I think that filming in high-pressure situations such as behind the scenes with the South Africa U-20 team at the World Cup and making sure that we were ever-present but not a distraction is very challenging, but in the end this produces some of the most compelling footage.

K+S

What impact do you hope the documentary will have?

Simon Laub

We would like the documentary to widen the debate on the right and wrong ways of approaching the movement of youths in football, not just in Africa but also worldwide. Moreover, we hope that we bring to the fore the desperate need for education and regulation and the realities of what can and does happen when this is insufficient or the proper infrastructure is lacking.

We hope to gain support and funding for organizations fighting against trafficking such as Foot Solidaire (which is run by one of our characters Jean Claude Mbvoumin), and SASI in South Africa and to drive debate and public opinion to force the hands of governments and worldwide governing bodies to invest in directly combating this problem, rather than simply paying lip service.

K+S

And has anything come of it yet?

Simon Laub

So far we have seen some encouraging results: Foot Solidaire recently was awarded funds as a direct result of Soka Afrika, and SASI was funded by a UK screening to hold a youth tournament over Christmas in Soweto aimed at educating young aspiring footballers. But much more help is needed!

We are screening the film worldwide in festivals and on TV and generating press, and hope with the help of fans and supporters such as K&S, this will snowball into impacting significantly on the public consciousness and force a significant change. We hope that we can use football as the powerful tool that it is, not just to entertain but to be a real force to engender social change.

Soka Afrika screens on Friday, March 13, 2015 8:00 pm