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Duane Hopkins Has Made a Film Celebrating the Intensity of the Football Fan

I had a chat with him about it.

A still from Duane Hopkins' The Twelfth Man

Footballers are pretty reliant on their fans. Without them, they wouldn’t have a salary or anyone to abuse them on Twitter when they miss an open goal. It’s because of this that supporters have been labelled “the twelfth man” – the final component of the 11-man squad.

The Twelfth Man is also the name of a new short film by Duane Hopkins, director of Better Things – a portrayal of life in rural England – and the recently released Bypass. Focusing on the angst, antagonism and rivalry between opposing fans on the day of the Sunderland-Newcastle derby, The Twelfth Man was commissioned as part of a series of football-inspired films directed by homegrown auteurs from 31 of the countries that participated in this year’s World Cup.


Among the filmmakers chosen, Gaspar Noe directed the French entry, Vincent Gallo the American and Hopkins the British. I caught up with him recently to talk about football, fans and his film.

Duane Hopkins (Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka)

VICE: So this all started with your friend Carlos Raygadas organising an omnibus of football related films. What motivated you to get involved?
Duane Hopkins: Carlos Raygadas is a Mexican director who’s really good; he’s had a few things in Cannes. We’ve been mates for about eight years and he got in touch and said that he was putting together this project, along with another Mexican director, Daniel Gruener. Basically, they wanted to put together short films in relation to the World Cup. They picked one director from each country to make a film to represent football in their country.

You were filming Bypass at the time this all kicked off. How did that affect your take on the project?
At the time I was in the process of editing Bypass, so I didn’t think I could do it. But Carlos got back in touch, said he'd give me the money and said I could do whatever I wanted. All I had to do was deliver the final cut and they promised to put out what I did with no interference. It was too intriguing to not do. It also meant there was quite a quick turnaround. It forced me to think differently cinematographically. I was going to have to be raw with the film and I was going to have to come up with an idea that would allow me to do it quickly.


So how did you come up with the idea for Twelfth Man?
I discussed it with Carlos and I found out that some of the other directors were focusing on the unity of football, about how it brings people together. But because I have a bit of a contrary nature I thought I’d do something about football the way I remember it. It was a whole different thing. I got interested in the game before the game. I wanted to film the supporters before the match. I had this idea that the film would stop as soon as the game started. The Sunderland-Newcastle derby was coming up, so I got together about ten filmers.

How did the filming work out on the day?
Derby days are high in emotion. The police are there as soon as the fans arrive, and they keep them separated. It’s always the same thing that happens in a derby. I’ve been in that situation; I know how raw and heightened it gets. I thought, 'Can we get right in the drama?' We shot on the day and we got some nice footage, so it was then about finding a narrative. It was about starting the film very normally with people having a drink and walking up to the stadium – it’s all quite civilised. At that point it’s still about the game they’re going to see. As the film progresses it becomes more and more uncivilised and you see all the bits of civilisation and socialisation stripped away until you’re left with something very animal. It’s all about the tribalism of the moment. That was fascinating. It’s about football, but it’s really about something else – it’s about the fans being part of a group.


The film is raw, and so is the rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland. Was this element one you wanted to get across?
We all know the discussions about how football has become gentrified and how a certain class of people are being pushed out. Yet, there's still a raw ownership about it that belongs to this one group of people, which has been passed down generations. You’ve got these middle aged guys who, during the week, have OK jobs and look after their families. But when it comes to the derby, it becomes this real kind of release valve of pressure.

In this age of austerity, it’s another way of coming together as a group, another release. I find that really fascinating. It’s the only time where they are letting the shackles off. I don’t think I’m over-analysing it when I say it’s an expression of a community. People don’t have the same kind of expressions that they used to have, like working in a factory or a political goal. There isn’t any class consciousness, whereas here they can still indulge in it. That togetherness, where they all want the same thing.

A still from The Twelfth Man

So you don't think football has completely lost its working class foundations?
I think there’s always going to be those fans. The distance between those on the field and those in the stands watching them is similar to the gaps between groups of people generally, which is becoming wider and wider. That's something that's happening to society in general. It wasn't necessarily my plan to make something political. Originally I wanted to film it because I knew it would be intense and dramatic. We weren’t filming from far away; we were right in the middle of it, reporting from the front line.


It was interesting how I could show the movement of the day. I could start at the train station, when the opposing supporters arrive, and then cut back to the ground, where the other supporters are waiting for them. You have the walk up the town. Then you can go underneath the stadium with them as they make their way into the ground… it’s a gladiatorial fucking arena. These two groups are meeting with one another and are sparring with each other. The energy you have in that moment is incredible. At the same time it’s all a celebration. You see groups of kids going together. I doubt there’s anywhere similar where kids can go. You’d probably have to go back to fucking rave culture with pills and that to find a moment when a group of kids could cut loose and find a common bond.

Yeah, it's the perfect place for people to let off steam.
I showed my mum and dad the film, and my mum thought the film was shocking and crazy. My dad’s an old football fan and he used to take me to watch Wolves, and he was sat there with a big grin. My mum said, "Is that what it’s like?" And he said, Yeah, that’s football." That’s why I used to go. I used to show support about where I was from. It really doesn't matter that the derby was Newcastle vs Sunderland. I could have shot this anywhere with any derby. London, Liverpool, Manchester. It's all the same thing. It's England. It's football. It's universal. It was interesting to make a piece of work which has this real visceral dangerous energy. It’s about humans needing a sense of belonging.


A still from The Twelfth Man

What effect do you think the "twelfth man" has psychologically on the match?
I think they have a big effect – the players need to know who’s there supporting them. But the film wasn’t so much about the moment they go and watch the game; it was about something that occurs before that. That’s what they're expressing before the match, that they're the supporters of this team. It's ownership. It's pride. Identity.

The project included films from around the world. How do you think English football culture differs from elsewhere?
I think we're quite similar to Italy and Spain. That’s another interesting thing about football, filmmaking or art – all the good stuff is a real impression of your cultural background. The reason I watch films from different countries is to get how that group of people live and what similarities there are. I think you’re always going to have that passion. It’s very raw.

If you compare it to Scandinavian countries, it’s not going to be as raw as what it is in Italy or Spain or the UK, as that’s to do with the background. Football used to be a real working class expression, like in Italy and Spain – and, I think, in Mexico as well. I knew I wanted to do something about the group, about the audience and the spectators, and about what they got from it, and how football was bigger than just a game. On its deepest levels it wasn’t about who wins or loses, but about, “This is where I’m fucking from, pal – I’m gonna support my team and show this is where I fucking come from.”


Thanks, Duane.


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