Eugene Martin discovered the Anderson Monarchs after he started coaching his daughter Sophie’s select soccer team when they lived in Philadelphia.
There was one team Sophie and her teammates played that was different from all the others.
The Anderson Monarchs were a team of black girls from urban Philly who didn’t have the resources of the other teams they played. They didn’t even have a practice field.
In spite of all the perceived barriers keeping the Anderson Monarchs from select soccer dominance, the team was winning. A lot. The team was so successful that Sports Illustrated named it Sports Team of the Year in 2008.
Martin and his daughter noticed the playmaking skills and dedication of the Monarchs firsthand. Their team went head-to-head with the Monarchs repeatedly.
“I noticed that every time they played us, they won 5-1,” said Eugene Martin, a professor of radio, television and film at the University of North Texas. “Every time we played them, our girls were like, ‘Oh no! Not them!’”
Martin made the documentary named for the team. He’ll see the film make its regional premiere at Thin Line Film Fest, the sole documentary film festival in Texas, which opens Friday in downtown Denton. The documentary began its trek of the film festival circuit last August.
“Most kids who play select soccer are from the suburbs,” Martin said. “And most of the kids playing are white. There aren’t very many minorities playing select soccer.”
Martin met the Monarchs’ coach, Walter Stewart, and the two coaches became friends in spite of their team rivalry. They discussed filming the Monarchs and the project began. Martin said the Sport Illustrated recognition came two weeks after Martin met the writer while doing research for his film. After that, the London newspaper The Guardian called the Monarchs “the future of American soccer.”
Martin describes his approach as an observational, immersive one. Rather than fill the documentary with interviews, he takes the viewer onto the field (and into the neighborhoods and front porches) to watch two players, 11-year-old Jlon and 10-year-old Kahlaa, in their formative years. The documentary follows them over three years as they develop on the field and off.
“As a filmmaker, I’m interested in immersing myself in a place,” Martin said. “All along the way, I am very honest about my process. As a father with a daughter they all knew, I was able to gain their trust. When I was there, I made it very clear I was a filmmaker. And before long, the girls didn’t even notice me. They’d see me and it would be like, ‘Oh, there’s Mr. Martin, that guy with the camera.’”
The documentary is bound to put some viewers ill at ease, bringing up the familiar trope of disadvantaged black girls living in an urban center where at least one practice was stopped by nearby gunfire.
Martin said the young athletes quickly transcend the uncomfortable shorthand seen in the media, where minorities are relegated to crime-ridden ghettos, surrounded by poor-performing schools and populated by low-income families.
“The Anderson Monarchs are a pretty happy bunch,” Martin said. “And this isn’t your typical film about winning or losing. This is about a team and these girls.”
Framed by the rigors and discipline of soccer delivered by “Coach Walt,” the film examines girls who face enormous limitations but don’t accept them.
Three teams make up the Monarchs. Stewart, who gave up a position at a Philadelphia law firm to teach and coach the Monarchs, has high expectations of his players. In turn, the film depicts players who expect as much — and maybe more — from themselves.
“This film isn’t really about soccer,” Martin said. “It’s really about caring about our daughters, because our girls are under a lot of pressure to be a certain way and to look a certain way.”
As he studied the Monarchs, Martin said he made a discovery.
“Playing soccer does an enormous amount of good for these girls’ self-confidence,” he said. “With the Monarchs, they aren’t just learning how to play a good game of soccer, they are learning leadership. What we’ve seen is that as they do better in soccer, they do better in school.”
One of the agreements the players make is that they can’t come to the practice field if they have bad grades.
“They have practice three times a week, so the girls have to be able to organize their schoolwork — and anything else they do, really — around that schedule,” Martin said.
When he began working on the documentary, the Anderson Monarchs were the only all-black girls select soccer team in the United States. The team’s success influenced the U.S. Soccer Foundation. Martin said the foundation is now focusing on developing soccer athletes in America’s urban centers.
Martin, whose daughter is a junior soccer player at Guyer High School, said he hopes to screen the documentary for soccer program leaders and players in the Denton school district.
He will attend the Thin Line screening on Feb. 17, which is sponsored by the Denton Soccer Association.
Martin’s is one of a number of films in the festival that have Denton ties or that were made by Denton filmmakers.
Denton filmmaker Andy LaViolette will defend his title as the winner of the 2012 Denton Doc Award with Snarky Puppy: Ground Up, which screens at 8 p.m. Saturday and 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Campus Theatre.
Dallas filmmaker and UNT graduate Patrick Flaherty directed 4 Nights in December, which follows Denton band Trebuchet, which screens at 8 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Campus Theatre and 3 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Fine Arts Theater.
UNT graduate student Sara Massetti’s short documentary Undocumented Dreams will be shown during the second program of film shorts, at 10:30 p.m. Saturday at the Campus Theatre.
The Burning of Fry Street, by late Denton filmmaker Christopher Largen, will have a memorial screening at 7 p.m. Feb. 14 on the roof of Cool Beans, 1210 W. Hickory St. The 16-minute film was screened at the inaugural Thin Line Film Fest in 2007, when it received the jury prize.
LUCINDA BREEDINGcan be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is email@example.com .