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Q&A: Documentary Filmmaker Jun Stinson

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition we spoke with documentary filmmaker and journalist Jun Stinson, a NorCal native. While a student in UC Berkeley’s journalism program, Stinson released her first documentary “The 90th Minute,” a short film about FC Gold Pride, the local women’s professional soccer team that featured six-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta. After graduating and working on several other projects, Stinson released her latest film “Futbolistas 4 Life” in 2018. The film focuses on the trials and tribulations of youth from undocumented families in Oakland at the public school Life Academy and their amazing journey to garner funds to build a soccer field for the community. Before COVID-19, the film screened throughout California and in festivals across the country. It can be viewed here. For more information on the film, click here. From now until the end of May, 50 percent of all Vimeo On Demand proceeds will go directly to undocumneted families at Life Academy who have been hit hard by this economic crisis in the wake of COVID-19.

NorCal: What got you interested in this project and why do you think it’s important?

Director Jun Stinson

Stinson: I was raised in Oakland, but left in middle school to move to Japan, where my mom is from, and eventually after college I came back and I came back because I love this town. It means so much to me in terms of who I am today. And I especially feel like I gained so much from the educators, after-school teachers and coaches that I had growing up here. The art, culture, and history of this city provided a foundation that led me to documentary filmmaking and that made me interested in learning about people’s stories and telling those stories in a visual and often artful way. I had met (Futbolistas 4 Life coach) Dania Cabello when I was screening The 90th Minute and she invited me to Life Academy where she was running Futbolistas 4 Life, an after school soccer program at the time. She invited me to screen my short to her students and the day that I came for the screening, she told me that an alum had been shot and killed the day before. His name was Luis Garibay and he was only 19-years-old. Luis was the third death to gun violence in the Life Academy community in a little over a year. That was my introduction to Life Academy. Shortly thereafter, the younger brother of a student at the time was killed, he was five-years-old. I read about him in the news and it was just shocking. This five-year-old had been killed outside of his father’s taco truck. It was utterly heartbreaking. His name was Gabriel Martinez. I was devastated for his family and the city. Then I learned that his sister Gaby was a soccer player at Life Academy. A few months later, I learned that another student, a junior, Alejandro Aguilera, who is brought up in the film, had been shot and killed in Oakland. When I learned about Alejandro’s death, I knew I needed to make this film. By this time I’d learned about the campaign for the soccer field, it had actually already happened, and I was really interested in telling the story knowing that the kids were doing this in order to make Life Academy a safer space for the kids. I really wanted to shed light on how these kids had responded to the series of violent deaths that had been happening in the Life Academy community, so that’s really what motivated me to start the film. I didn’t have many resources, I had a good friend with gear and some time who was willing to go out there with our cameras and film with me.

NorCal: Whether it’s change in the community or more awareness of the situation, what’s the goal of the film?

Stinson: I came into this film wanting to shed light on the realities of experiences that kids were having in Oakland. Another reason the Futbolistas campaigned for the field was to address the stark inequities that exist in our communities. The kids didn’t feel safe walking to the closest soccer field in the area at the time, and even if they did go, they said it was usually occupied by adults. I wanted to address these realities in the film and show that these inequities exist. As I continued to work on the film over the years, it was very clear to me that this was more than a story of a campaign for a field, this was also a story about the lives of these students who were going through all these other experiences, specifically how they were being impacted by federal immigration policies. That’s not something I intended to film, but I knew as a filmmaker that I wanted to tell this story in part from the perspective of the students. It so happened that many of the students at Life Academy are first or second generation immigrants, many of whom are either undocumented or their parents are undocmented. That organically became a big part of the film. I started this film in 2012, which was when Obama passed DACA, the program that gives undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as kids, the permission to live and work here. So as a curious journalist, I was really interested in (central character) Ben’s story because I learned that he was in the process of applying for DACA and he was getting ready to go to college. At that time, not many documentaries had been done about kids like Ben and I was really interested in his journey. Originally, it was wow, here are these kids who’ve faced this devastation in their community and are coming together with their mentor to respond in a really positive way by campaigning for a soccer field to play a sport that gives them so much joy. But through telling that story, there was this whole other layer in terms of telling the stories of these kids’ everyday lives outside of their after school soccer program.

NorCal: Seeing what you’ve seen through filming and working on the documentary, how much do you think that sports, specifically soccer, can be a vehicle for change?

Stinson: I think it has a tremendous impact on communities and the lives of kids. I have seen it beyond Fubolistas 4 Life. I’ve stayed in touch with the school, I’m still in touch with teachers and administrators and some students. It’s night and day, the impact that that soccer field has had. They just appreciated that field so much. Students would come early to school, they would leave late. That was amazing for teachers. It was an incentive for kids to come to school, so that they could play on the field. At the same time, it was a safe space for them just to be free. It’s changing now, you’re starting to see more soccer fields in Oakland public schools, but at the time, so many Oakland public schools’ playgrounds were just  concrete and there’s only so much you can do on concrete. The soccer field just created this incredible safe vehicle for kids to play, kids to hang out and sit on the turf and watch soccer players play and it also beautifies the playground and adds color and joy to the space. I think it’s had a huge impact on many of these kids’ lives.

NorCal: You started this project in 2012, what were the challenges of finishing the film?

Stinson: Funding, independent filmmaking is a really arduous process. The funding came from grants and donors and my own pocket. And time, lot’s of not only my own time, but so many people dedicated their time to this project. I had a day job that I loved, working for a news organization, while I was making this film. Just finding the time to finish, which was frustrating, years would go by and I would think, “why is this not finished?” Especially when you’re dealing with news-worthy stories, I kept feeling like this needed to get out now, like it’s applicable right now. The unfortunate reality is that, even to this day, a lot of the issues are still very applicable. So when the film finally came out, the response I received from audiences was just, “wow, this really resonates to the times right now.” The film came out in 2018 and issues it brings up around immigration, gun violence, inequities when it comes to safe places for kids to play, continue to be really applicable.

NorCal: Given that you’re not able to screen the film in public due to COVID-19, what are your plans to get the film out there to the public?

Stinson: Literally right before shelter in place happened in California, we had planned a huge event at Life Academy High School for the students and the community and it was going to be the first big screening at the school. We had done some small group screenings for students in the past, but this was going to be this big screening. We rented an outdoor screen to screen it on the soccer field and partnered other incredible organizations doing great work supporting youth and immigrant communities for the event. This is something that we had been planning for six months and unfortunately when we learned about how serious COVID was and that it was here, we learned that we needed to take major precautions. We postponed the event and hope to hold it next year, but it is on Vimeo On Demand so people can watch it that way and we do have a campaign until the end of May and 50 percent of all proceeds go directly to undocumented families at Life Academy. I’ve also gotten some requests to do some digital screenings so I foresee in the future that we’re going to be doing more of those.

NorCal: Anything else you’d like to add?

Stinson: I do want to mention that Dania was also a big inspiration in making this film . When I was screening The 90th Minute, the GM of the Bay Area Breeze was helping me reach out to women players with professional experience to sit in on Q&A panels that I was hosting. She invited Dania and I was just blown away by her insight on what it was like to be a woman playing  professional soccer. Dania had played for the Bay Area Breeze, Santos’ women’s team in Brazil and before that, for Cal. On panels,  she would talk about her work as an educator and what this game meant to her students, so I kept inviting her back to speak on these panels. Through that process I got to know her better and then I got to see her in action at Life Academy and it was just so clear to me that Dania has a gift as an educator and coach and a special  ability to connect with young people. As a Latina who had played at high levels of the game, born and raised in  Oakland  to parents who had fled the Pinochet regime in  Chile, I just really felt strongly about how important it was to tell her story,  stories that we just don’t hear about often.