Martin Bengtsson was just 15 years old when he was first signed by a professional football club, Sweden’s Örebro SK. Two years later he was snapped up by Inter Milan. It seemed like a dream come true, but as Bengtsson went on to reveal in his autobiography, it was anything but. Now his story has been told on film by fellow Swede Ronnie Sandahl. Tigers is Sweden’s official submission to the 2022 Oscars.
When Ronnie and I met to talk about the film, I told him that the first thing I had thought of when watching it was the #MeToo movement. It doesn’t feature sexual abuse, but the success of that movement has led to the gradual emergence of conversations about other kinds of mistreatment, especially with regard to young people just starting out on careers in prestige industries. He tells me that he started work on the story several years before that movement began, but agrees that there’s a connection.
A hostile environment
“ I think it informs the process in a way,” he says. “And I think it has become a part of a discussion, the film, especially in Sweden, where right now men are finally speaking out as well about abuse within the world of sports, but also the world of culture and entertainment. And I think it's hugely important. There's something extremely powerful in the #MeToo movement, that you could raise your hand and say ‘This happened to me, too.’ I mean, there's something so extremely human and valuable in that. And hopefully, film could also be a way of raising the question.”
It began he says, when he was 22 and had just published his first novel.
“That spring that I was not the only kid on the book tour. There was also this young footballer who had written this autobiography, called In The Shadow Of San Siro. That's how I met Martin Bengtsson. And at the time, I wanted to have this dream of making movies. And I was working with my first short film, as I was not at all in a position where I could put this story into the big screen. But on a drunk night out, we made a pact that he would say no to all the offers from various producers that wanted to put his story on the screen, and he would wait for me, for when I felt ready. And when I felt like I was good enough to make it, I would try to make it.
“So it's been with me for a while, and the strange thing is, it grew into more than just this movie. It also grew into an idea of making three films about sports and psychology, but also the political aspects. So Tigers became the second one, and the only one in this loose trilogy that I chose to direct. I think in a way they inform each other.”
I ask if there were difficult legal issues to negotiate in making a film like this, but he says that far from objecting to it, Inter Milan were supportive.
“I felt that they were quite generous. They acknowledge that this happened, and they let me into the players’ house to scout, and they let me into the training ground, but there was never, like, official cooperation. And I think that was good – that we were, you know, standing free and making the film what we wanted to make.”
I tell him that I liked what he did with the players’ house in the film because it feels very claustrophobic in the way it's filmed. How did he approach doing that?
“First of all, I scouted the real one,” he says. “It was really striking to me, because it felt like a prison. So it kind of started this process within me that I wanted to restructure this narrative like a prison break movie. I wanted to play with all these questions, elements, you know, the bars [on the windows], which were there in real life as well. But also, you know, the sounds. The inability to be alone, you know, that you're never really alone and there's always sounds everywhere. And that's why he buys this car, even though he's 16 and not allowed to drive it. He just needs somewhere to sit in silence.
On the pitch
“It was interesting with the players’ house because I understood early on that this will be such an important part of the movie and I also wanted the actors to really feel that it was their house. 50% were actors and 50% of people were soccer players. And they had been living there for a couple days, sleeping in the same room and really owning the place both emotionally and physically, you know? Because I think quite often you can see – especially with young actors – when they're not familiar with a place that you can, you can sense it in the camera. So I really wanted to make it as real and naturalistic as possible.”
In some of the football scenes as well, a lot of it's quite close up compared to what we're used to seeing in football. We rarely see the whole pitch. Was that also a deliberate choice, to keep that sense of claustrophobia?
“Yeah, very much. I mean, soccer is one of those sports I've never really seen work on film. It's very few films, maybe none, where the football seems like real soccer. So I knew I needed to have a different angle on it, a new perspective on it, and I didn't want to show soccer the way we can see it on TV every night. And what you can’t get in real life is the camera on the pitch, you know? So I wanted the camera to be as close to our main character as possible, and I wanted to portray this team sport that soccer is as an individual sport. I wanted his individual experience, his loneliness, his vulnerability.
“It's also a thing with sports, especially with soccer, you only see them when they have the ball, but 89 out of 90 minutes in a soccer game you don't have the ball. So I wanted to go close on his emotional state rather than understanding everything that happens in the match, because to me, this is a film that is not about winning or losing a match. It's a film about winning or losing your life.”
Something else that I found interesting in terms of the storytelling goes back to that isolation, and the fact that Martin can't speak Italian when he's first there. Was that a challenge in terms of storytelling?
“It actually felt like a gift that I could have a main character that I've put in situations where you don't understand anything, you know? To kind of create that kind of subjectivity together with the audience, that we're in it together with them, they don't understand what they're saying and, you know – especially for the non Italian-speaking audience – it's a very special vulnerability to not be able to understand if people want to harm you. It's a very, very vulnerable situation. And also, it was a big part of how the real life Martin Bengtsson described his first time in Italy. He didn't understand what was going on and no one told him.
“It's hard enough just to end up in a new situation like that, and a quite hostile situation, when you're 16. To do it in an environment where you absolutely don't understand anything of what people are saying, I mean, that's terrifying.”
A taste of freedom
I suggest that it added to the dehumanisation that he was going through as well. There's a scene very early on where his teeth are being checked and made me think of what happens when people are buying horses.
“Yeah. As you say, I mean, when they're buying a football player, they’re obviously checking out their assets with a medical, certainly in a lot of sports where there’s a lot of money involved. And that means they check on various things where, for example, they sometimes they check the teeth. And, yeah, the teeth were an important part of how I worked with Eric Enge, the main actor, because I put braces on him. Because I wanted to kind of have a secret and I wanted him to have this kind of prison in his mouth as well. As an act of destructivity/liberation he tries to carve it out with scissors. I mean, it's one of those things that a lot of people find hard to watch in the movie, but yeah.”
So where did he find Eric? Because he's wonderful in that role.
“Thank you. Yeah, he's amazing. He's a very young actor that I'd seen in a few small roles. So he was one of the young guys that was I was curious to audition. It felt very interesting that he had this kind of fragility, combined with a certain brutality in his face. And I knew we had a long way to go with him because to begin with he was very skinny. He didn’t look like an athlete. So I had to put him in brutal football training for a year. He put on 10 kilos of muscle, so he really got got much bigger.
“Quite often with young actors the casting is close to being the character. Here, it wasn’t really like that. I mean, he's quite far from his character. So he did a big acting job, a really big character job. He had to change everything from how he's walking to how he's smiling, how he's talking. And I told him from the get go, that, you know, this will be the equivalent to extreme sports in the world of acting. He was going to be in basically every shot.”
We are almost out of time at this point, so finally, I ask Ronnie how he feels about the film being the Best International Feature contender for Sweden.
“I'm very proud,” he says. “Happy that the film gets gets recognised. And after a great festival tour with a lot of awards, it's been fantastic. Also to go now to the US with the film and meet the audience and meet people. It's a fantastic experience.”