When Arcadi Gaydamak, the Russian billionaire owner of the Israeli soccer team Beitar Jerusalem, known for being the only team in the league without Arab players, hires two Chechen Muslims in the middle of the 2012-’13 season, it sparks a catastrophic battle between the team leadership and its right-wing, extreme nationalist fan base. Granted amazing access to all parties in the story, producer-director Maya Zinshtein, a Russian-born investigative journalist, smartly places her shocking portrait of a team and its fans in a broader sociopolitical context, allowing it to surpass its token subject matter and explore issues such as racism and mob rule. Indeed, it provides a cautionary tale for countries like the U.S., where politicians have failed to thoroughly condemn hate speech. Loaded with stranger-than-fiction incident, this documentary should find robust festival play before seguing into international broadcast.
Zinshtein opens with a brief history of the team, founded in 1936 and one of the Israel Premier League’s most controversial because of its multitude of outspoken fans who provide the players with plenty of love, but who also incur penalties for the team because of their bad behavior in the stands. Traditionally the team of choice for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and Jews descended from communities in the Middle East, it is also known for a supporter’s group called La Familia that took over the eastern bleachers in Beitar’s Teddy Stadium back in 2005 and became notorious for chants that insult Arab players. The film’s title, “Forever Pure,” comes from a logo on one of their banners.
As the 2012-’13 season begins, the team, which had been in a slump, starts to rise in the rankings to the delight of long-time head coach Eli Cohen and charismatic captain and goalkeeper Ariel Harush, who aspires to a career in Europe. Even owner Gaydamak, who had been mostly absent after his failed bid to become Jerusalem’s mayor in 2008, starts to reappear in the stands. But then, for reasons of his own, Gaydamak takes Beitar to Chechyna for a friendly match. The scenes of the team’s welcome in Grozny by Chechen strongman president Arcadi Gaydamak and his ministers help illustrate another theme that Zinshtein mines: the exploitation of sports by politicians.
Shortly after their return to Israel, Gaydamak announces the acquisition of 23-year-old Zaur Sadayev and 19-year-old Dzhabrail Kadiyev from Chechnya. While privately they may not have been happy about this turn of events, coach Cohen, captain Harush, and team chairman Itzik Korenfine put on a public face of welcome for the newcomers. To their surprise, they are immediately branded as traitors by members of La Familia. Harush in particular finds it extremely difficult to deal with the boos and ugly chants coming from his erstwhile supporters.
Unfortunately, a failure to nip this fan rebellion in the bud leads to the hate-filled situation spiraling out of control. As Korenstine notes, “Our silence legitimizes them.” The members of La Familia take pride in being the most racist fans in the league and are able to instigate a boycott of the stadium. Certainly their absence seems preferable to their return when they boo their own team, fight with its new players, and threaten to kill the chairman.
Covering all angles, Zinshtein even shows the anxious mothers of Sadayev and Kadiyev worried for their safety. The two Chechens, who can’t understand why they are being called Arabs, have burly bodyguards who accompany them almost everywhere and guard their hotel rooms on the road. In one fascinating scene, they are taken to the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, largely populated by the descendants of Chechens who settled in the Ottoman empire some 500 years ago. While their new friends can’t speak Chechen, their community is home to a mosque with four minarets as in Caucus and offers familiar food.
In holding a mirror to Israeli society, Zinshtein and her editors do an outstanding job of cutting together variable quality television and home-video footage along with her interviews. “Forever Pure” world premiered in competition at the Jerusalem Film Festival in July and nabbed awards for best documentary and editing.