IFFR 07: Zidane – A 21st Century Portrait

Perhaps the most original and technically striking films I saw at Rotterdam was Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. A truly original style of documentary, the filmmakers trained 17 cameras of various type on one man during a football (soccer) match between Spanish giants Real Madrid and their league opponents Villareal. That man was Zinédine Zidane, the French maestro of the midfield who is one of, if not the greatest players of his generation.
An integral part of the French triumph in the 1998 World Cup, ‘Zizou,’ as he is known, retired under somewhat ignominious circumstances following France’s loss in the final match of the 2006 Cup but that hardly dulls what was an extraordinary career on the pitch and by isolating the man Zidane attempts to capture something of what it is to be Zidane. For the 80-odd minutes he is on the pitch (Zidane gets ejected for a red card foul before the end of the match), the film does exactly that.

Lest the non-sports minded of you begin to glaze over at this point, let me make it perfectly clear that this is by no means a sports documentary. This is a portrait of a man at work and in his element; one of the best in the world at his job and it is a job that billions (yes, I said billions) of people in the world would give their eye teeth to have. While there is no dialog in the film, there are occasionally words on the screen that indicate thoughts that Zidane has during a match, thoughts about every day life that in this setting seem surreal and full of a deeper meaning.
That said, I will not claim that it is completely incidental that the filmmakers chose this particular sport to film. Football is unique among team sports in that there are great periods of time when the “team” aspect is not apparent. Unlike the frantic pace of basketball or hockey or the constant contact of American football, soccer has quite a bit of downtime followed by intense bursts of activity. In this way it is somewhat akin to baseball, but that’s a matter for another, longer post!
Zinédine Zidane is a Professional of the first order. After watching him play this game, watching his eyes as they follow the action, him seemingly standing about idly when suddenly he’s exactly where the ball lands, watching his feet as they control the ball with precision, it’s impossible not to be even more frustrated with the lazy and indifferent play that seems all to often to permeate the pitch these days. There is no joking with other players, no chatter, no trash talking to the opponent. Through the nearly hour and a half of game-time, Zidane utters but one word: “Hey.” This he does repeatedly to admittedly comic effect, but it just goes to illustrate that when you’re ‘Zizou,’ that’s enough.
Technically, this film is a marvel. The opening credits begin with the camera zooming in towards a television and the screen eventually becoming full of pixels and eventually the word “ZIDANE” appears, with each letter laying over the previous one and forming an odd symbol, resembling in some odd way Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man. The remainder of the film is a mix of formats, from a shot of a television playing the game to an aerial shot of the stadium, Madrid’s Bernabau, to everything in between, never before has there been a film like this and it is a completely engrossing experience.

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