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The great disappearing film

With a competitive movie environment and new hurdles to distribution, some worthy films go unseen by American audiences

The great disappearing film

Wrya and Dana Ahmed in El Clásico (Hene Film)

One night in 2016, New York resident Joel Darling accompanied some friends to the Tribeca Film Festival and watched a film he knew little about. El Clásico, from Kurdish director Halkawt Mustafa, tells the story of two bickering, soccer-obsessed brothers in Iraq. Both of the brothers are little people (dwarfs) who travel to Madrid on a mission to meet a famous soccer player. 

Darling loved it.

The unusual road trip film has all the Hollywood magic: love, comedy, sports, and drama. War and terrorists threaten the brothers throughout their journey. The brothers, Alan and Shirwan (actors Wrya and Dana Ahmed are also brothers in real life), run a tea shop in a small Kurdish town in northern Iraq. Alan is in love with Gona, but her father says he will never allow his daughter to marry a man like Alan. (The implication is clear to a tearful Alan that the father is referring to his stature.)

In the story, Gona’s father is a huge fan of Real Madrid soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, and so Alan decides to win his favor by traveling to meet Ronaldo and giving him a gift on behalf of Gona’s father. The brothers buzz across Iraq in a four-wheeler, navigate Baghdad traffic, and then turn to smugglers to find a way to Spain. It’s intense, sweet, and ultimately uplifting. The film won an award for best cinematography at Tribeca.

Still, three years after El Clásico played at Tribeca, there is no way for Darling to rewatch the film or share it with others. It never got U.S. distribution. Even in this age of seemingly infinite internet streaming, no one in the United States can see this film, for now.

Darling still thinks about El Clásico. “There are so many great moments that I want to experience again,” he recently said of the movie. “I think it would be so successful if it was mass-released.” 

Hene Film

Halkawt Mustafa (Hene Film)

Awards season is arriving, with buzzy films like The Irishman and 1917 hitting theaters in search of golden statues. But there are also great films that have no statues, that go unnoticed, and—as in the case of El Clásico—are entirely unviewable. As theaters and online platforms get swamped with middling content, high-quality films can go unseen. 

“Some say, ‘If it’s good, people will find it and people will see it,’” said Erik Løkkesmoe, who heads Aspiration Entertainment, which markets and distributes films. “I tend to think that is glossing over fundamental challenges. Really good films are never found and never watched, because they get lost in the massive clutter of content.” 

Awards season highlights the commercial side of filmmaking and the importance of distributors to bring a great film to an audience. Big studios muscle independent films out of movie theaters, demanding more and more screens for the latest Marvel or Star Wars installment. That leaves independent films with a slimmer chance of finding a theatrical audience.

Distributors can more easily disseminate films through online platforms, but they find it harder to attract eyeballs there. Even when an independent film sells to Netflix or Amazon, it may disappear into their clutter of content. Distributors are struggling to figure out good models for what one called this “very strange new world.”

Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP

Erik Løkkesmoe (Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

Aspiration Entertainment tries to find surprises from smaller independent filmmakers that big studios overlook for marketing and distribution. It marketed films like 2018’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor and this year’s The Peanut Butter Falcon. It’s about to pick up a film from the Heartland Film Festival, a nontypical festival that Løkkesmoe said exhibits films with “richer values, stories that reflect more rooted ideals of community.”

Aspiration is not explicitly faith-based, but Løkkesmoe is a Christian. As a distributor, the company is essentially a curator for audiences that share its vision of what makes a good film. Just as parents want to take their children to a Pixar film, Aspiration hopes its audience will want to see an Aspiration film.

In the current movie environment, theatrical audiences tend to have specialized interests, Løkkesmoe explained. When people have the option to stay home, only a movie that feels like a “rally or a concert” brings them out. Audiences will go to theaters with like-minded friends and fans, whether to Star Wars or faith-based films.

Those passionate fans help sell a film by word of mouth, so it’s easier for distributors to sign on to a film that already has a built-in fan base. But that creates a problem for the independent, off-beat films that Aspiration likes to promote.

“If you don’t have the romantic comedy with a big celebrity … it’s going to take a lot of work to find an audience and make money,” said Løkkesmoe.

As much as he loves a good independent film, Løkkesmoe still has to make business decisions. Aspiration has declined to distribute or promote films that he loves because of the effort and money it would take to find an audience.

“No one’s figured it out,” he said.

‘Really good films are never found and never watched, because they get lost in the massive clutter of content.’—Erik Løkkesmoe

TODAY, El Clásico’s filmmaking team is hard to find. I couldn’t get a response from Mustafa, the director, or from any other company members associated with the film, to ask them about their distribution efforts. Emails bounced back from the marketing team the film had hired at Tribeca. 

The production company behind the three-year, $2.2 million project did at least release a making-of series on YouTube—and the real story is almost as gripping as the film itself. The brothers who acted in the film had never been inside a movie theater, much less been the stars of a film.

But Mustafa moved in with them for a year, both to learn their way of life in northern Iraq and to prepare them for being on camera. When Mustafa first arrived in their village of 350 people, he couldn’t find the brothers’ house, so they met him on their four-wheeler, which became a fixture in the film.

Most movies set in Iraq are filmed in locations like Jordan. Mustafa took the risk of filming on-site in Iraq, even as ISIS romped the country. The El Clásico producers said they couldn’t find insurers to cover the production. When the crew filmed in one village that Saddam Hussein had destroyed, it rebuilt with the locals’ help the bazaar at the center of town.

At one point as the team was filming in a hotel in Baghdad, a blast went off nearby, shaking the set. The team later learned that bombing had killed two dozen people. At the time, ISIS was not far from Baghdad, and Mustafa, in the YouTube series, recalled the Baghdad security tips he’d been given: wait to leave the hotel until after 9 a.m., when most of the road bombs would have already gone off, and always drive with the windows down so the glass wouldn’t kill you if it exploded.

The month after El Clásico premiered at Tribeca, its story came a little too close to reality: ISIS terrorists attacked a café of Real Madrid fans, killing 16. The terrorist group believes soccer is against Islamic teachings. In the film, a scene shows terrorists beating the brothers and telling them never to watch soccer again.

Unfortunately, no Americans can currently see any of these scenes.

Good films that don’t get U.S. distribution are often international in origin. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates only five foreign films for an Academy Award, and each country can submit only one film for nomination. Iraq submitted El Clásico for its national entry, but it was one of 85 countries entering films, and El Clásico didn’t make the short list. 

SNG Film

Scene from Tanzania Transit (SNG Film)

MARK STUCKE, a former war correspondent who founded and runs Journeyman Pictures, a British distribution company for international documentaries, said there has been “almost no appetite” in the United States for international documentaries. Without companies like Journeyman, many such films would never be sold in the United States.

Journeyman has an unorthodox approach: When it acquires a documentary, it releases it on all platforms at once—broadcast, digital, or subscription-based services. Under the traditional model, Stucke would tease a film at a festival, do a limited theatrical release a few months afterward, and then later release it on iTunes or another digital platform.

“We ignore all of that old-school stuff,” Stucke said. He thinks a onetime, all-out blast is the best strategy in an industry that releases 25,000 documentaries a year. Studios are shortening theatrical release times because fewer people go to theaters nowadays, he said. “We’ve simply completely truncated it.”

Journeyman distributed a great documentary from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Tanzania Transit. Tribeca has its own clutter, with movie critics often facing down nearly 100 features at the festival, but Tanzania broke through.

SNG Film

Scene from Tanzania Transit (SNG Film)

The film is a beautiful observational documentary following three characters on a train ride through Tanzania. There’s a Masai grandfather traveling back with his son from the big city, where the son is an aspiring YouTube star. There’s a woman who owned a bar and is trying to start a new life after being taken advantage of by her husband. And then there is a prosperity gospel preacher, who traverses the train cars trying to squeeze money from the poor by doing healings.

The camera never leaves the inside of the train. Film director Jeroen van Velzen wanted viewers to feel as if they were passengers aboard the train the whole time. That allows him to give intimate portraits of the characters and allows the viewer to experience part of a particular African society that is divided by class, ethnicity, and religion. 

Van Velzen spent about four years working on the project, and a month and a half riding the train to film. But when it came to distribution, he laughed. “I don’t actually know that much. … It’s a very strange system, distribution of films,” van Velzen said. 

Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Jeroen van Velzen (Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

One of his producers connected with Journeyman for distribution. Journeyman got the film into festivals and sold it as an exclusive release on Amazon, where it now streams free for Prime members. Without Amazon, Stucke said, the documentary probably wouldn’t have attracted any interest stateside because it was “too foreign.”

“Who is going to run that film? [PBS] maybe, beyond that pretty much nobody,” Stucke said.

If Stucke had gone the traditional route of a theatrical release for Tanzania Transit several months after Tribeca, he estimated “perhaps a thousand eyeballs, or pairs of eyeballs,” would have seen it.

“There’s so much to attract anyone’s attention, most of it rubbish,” said Stucke. For the films you want people to see: “You’ve got to blast it out.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.