Wednesday 12 July 2023

Lotus Sports Club (V. Hem / T. Colognese, 2022)

Dutch NGO Document Our History Now is one of the backers of Vanna Hem and Tommaso Colognese's cheerful, sunny documentary that focuses on the Cambodian football team of the title.  Lotus Sports Club's members include a number of teenagers who have become estranged from their parents but have since found a home with the team's coach, Pa Vann, who both hones their soccer skills and teaches them the basics of joinery; it's clear that Pa Vann—and his wife Sophorn—wants to give these young people every chance of succeeding, both on and off the field.  For this football club, the emphasis is very much on inclusivity, with around half of the squad's players identifying as LGBTQ.  It's great that Pa Vann and Sophorn have opened their doors to these children, but it's worrying to contemplate what might have happened had the club not existed. 

While Lotus Sports Club gives us a good general overview of the title organisation, the directors place two young players—Leak and Amas—front and centre of the film as it documents their plans to fly the nest and establish themselves in Phnom Penh.  Cambodia's bustling capital—which is a far cry from Pa Vann's rural setup—features elsewhere in the film as the setting for a rain-lashed national football tournament involving Lotus Sports Club, who go toe-to-toe against some top teams from other regions.  Leak and Amas are likeable, good-natured boys, and it's obvious that Pa Vann has helped develop them as both people and players.  As you might expect, the moment when a child moves on from Lotus Sports Club proves to be as painful as it is necessary, and Pa Vann is understandably emotional when the time comes for a team member to leave his home—even if he fully recognises how important it is for these kids to progress into the wider world.

Although Lotus Sports Club shines the spotlight on Leak and Amas, the film is underpinned by Pa Vann's altruistic endeavours, which are something to behold; the coach's tireless efforts to give these children a springboard in life are quite remarkable, especially when you consider that Pa Vann would have lived through the hell on earth that was the genocide inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, an event that is still well within living memory.  By an accident of birth, Lotus Sports Club's players managed to avoid the Pol Pot regime and Cambodia's "Year Zero", and while the country still bears the scars of this dreadful period, the lively Lotus Sports Club paints a picture of a new, forward-looking Cambodia, one that is proving quite successful when it comes to shrugging off the weight of history (prior to the Khmer Rouge years, there was the matter of a near-century of French colonial rule).  

While it may be quite a stretch to say that this football club is a microcosm of present-day Cambodia, it is certainly fair to say that Pa Vann's purposeful optimism circulates in the wider country via the young people whose lives he has helped shape.  There's a lot packed into Lotus Sports Club's breezy 72 minutes and, given that the film was shot over the course of five years, we can only assume that the editing process—which was delayed several times on account of the COVID-19 pandemic— involved many late nights and countless difficult decisions.  This is a solid directorial feature debut for both Vanna Hem and Tommaso Colognese, the latter of whom was hitherto best known as one of the producers of Oscar-nominated animated feature The Breadwinner.  While Lotus Sports Club has already been broadcast on Cambodian TV, it is difficult to see it enjoying many international screenings outside of the festival circuit—which is a pity, as this is an engaging, heartfelt work.  You can donate to support the film and its subjects via this link.

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI