Acclaimed Ukrainian Documentary Tells Story of Poverty and Women’s Football
12 October, 2017

Ukrainian director Alisa Kovalenko never thought her most recent short documentary would resonate with so many people. But Home Match — which tells the story of a struggling Ukrainian football player — has now been featured on the website of British news site The Guardian.

“I did not expect this at all,” Kovalenko said in an interview with Hromadske. “I thought my story is too small and too local… But Charlie, who represents The Guardian in Ukraine, said a girl like [protagonist] Alina can be found in London or the suburbs of Paris, which makes this story so universal.”

Filmed in Kyiv, Home Match tells the real-life story of 20-year-old football player Alina Shylova, who plays for Atex Kyiv, the poorest football team in the Ukrainian Premier League. All of the Atex team members play for free out of a love of the game.

Shylova, who grew up in the Kyiv suburbs with an alcoholic mother and two younger half-siblings, learned to play football during her childhood when she spent a lot of time on the streets looking for an escape from her family’s struggles.

Kovalenko made Home Match with a £5,000 ($6,615) grant from The Guardian and The Filmmaker Fund to finance independent documentaries that expose unique stories about the human condition. The project was also supported by The British Council in Kyiv and Ukrainian human rights film festival Docudays.

“We didn’t have any clear requirements for the projects,” said Darya Bassel, program director at Docudays. “The only criterion was that the film needs to be about modern Ukraine [and] current things that worry our society.”

Bassel says that Kovalenko’s film “describes the extreme poverty and segregation of our society, where none of the social connections matter and one cannot hope for help from the state.”

Shylova’s story easily fits that description. In the film, Shylova’s mother dies from complications of alcoholism, leaving her eldest daughter to raise her six- and seven-year-old half-siblings. Taking care of these kids becomes Shylova’s full-time responsibility and threatens her football career.

“She’s got what it takes to be a star on the national team… [But] no matter what offers she gets from football clubs abroad, she’s not going to leave, because those children will keep her here,” Shylova’s coach Alla Gres says in the film.

A screenshot from Home Match. Photo credit: The Guardian

According to Home Match, Ukrainian women’s football collapsed alongside the Soviet Union. Currently, there are only around 200 professional players, most of whom come from impoverished backgrounds.

In March 2016, The Guardian announced that six film production teams were chosen out of 92 applications as semi-finalists for its grant. Ultimately, Kovalenko’s team won the contest. Two other films also received financial support: The Winter Garden’s Tale and The Fall of Lenin received British Council grants of £3,000 ($3,970) each.

Home Match will be shown at Docudays in March.

Hromadske sat down with Alisa Kovalenko, the director behind the Home Match to discuss the film and the fate of Ukrainian women's football in general.

How did you feel when you found out that The Guardian and the Filmmaker Fund chose your team for the grant?

Well, I did not expect that at all. I thought that my story was too small and too local. So I was pleasantly surprised when we received the main prize from The Guardian. After that, we spoke with Charlie, who represents The Guardian in Ukraine, and he said that girls like [the protagonist,] Alina can be found in London or in the suburbs of Paris, which makes this story so universal.

How did you find out about Alina and why did you think her story was interesting and worth doing a film about?

I came to take a look at the training session of the only [women’s football] clubs in Kyiv, which is called Atex. I have a personal connection, as my cousin used to play football 20 years ago — so I’ve been fascinated by women’s football for a long time. So I was visiting their training session and their coach came up to me and said: “Look at that girl, she is a hero”. She told me about [Alina’s] life and her difficult childhood, that she is from an orphanage. I knew straight away that it was a story for a documentary. I had no doubt that, if I started making it, it would become the real deal. I planned it as a full-length film though. But we prepared a short version for The Guardian. It’s a great start if you have the support.

A screenshot from Home Match. Photo credit: The Guardian

So this football team that you just mentioned, that Alina plays for, Atex Kyiv… In the film, it says that its players don’t get paid for games. So is that true, do these girls have no salaries at all?

Yes, from time to time [they don't]… Their coach Alla Gres has been working with the team for a long time, actually, she founded it and helps the girls a lot. But it’s difficult to pay salaries without sponsors. They are in constant search of sponsors. It’s very hard. We know that in men’s football they pay the players millions, but women’s football isn’t supported much, even by the state. That’s why it’s a sad story and I hope that this documentary, both long and short versions, will help find sponsors for the team. It’s very hard for the girls because when they break their legs, get injuries, they have to pay for the treatment, or coach Alla Gres fundraises to help them somehow as the operations are often expensive. Girls are forced to take jobs on the side to be able to play football, like peeling vegetables, selling flowers.

When did you start making this film and how long did it take: from the very beginning until it was released?

I started working on the documentary in February 2016, it will soon be two years since then. I’m still working on it. We finished editing the full-length version, there are just some extra shootings, but in general, we worked on the version for The Guardian for a year. In February we finished editing the short version. 

What did it feel like to meet Alina? 

It was funny because when visited the training session for the first time to shoot the girls, I just wanted to take a look at them, at their training, to decide who interested me. When you work in this field, you know that there are some people who the cameras just love. So I was just shooting and watching them play. When I was watching the video after that, I knew that would be making a film about Alina, but it turned out that I had shot a lot of her even before I knew I would be making a film about her. When I heard her story from the coach, about her fate, that she is from the outskirts of Kyiv, she had a difficult childhood and grew up without her parents, for me it became clear that she is a real hero, that she was strong enough to be the protagonist of a documentary film.

A screenshot from Home Match. Photo credit: The Guardian

Obviously, with The Guardian uploading Home Match to their website, the film is bound to receive a lot of views and potentially a lot of attention too. Have there been any offers, maybe from some generous people who offered to help Alina and her family financially? Do you know how her story has developed since the film came out?

I received a letter from a man from England yesterday. He offered sponsorship for the team, help for Alina and the children. It’s extremely cool. I hope we receive more letters like this because the aim of the documentary film is not only to tell a story but to also try and help someone if they are in a difficult situation. Actually, her story will have an even greater happy ending than what is shown in the short film, but I won’t reveal this now because we have this full-length film that we’re going to show at Docudays in March. This story only ended in a logical way just recently. And by "ended" I mean for cinema, within the hour and a half time slot.

So the full-length film is going to be released in March, right? At the Docudays Film Festival?

In Ukraine — yes, I really hope so. Because this is the best and the only documentary film festival. And because they backed The Guardian’s project —“The Guardian Goes To Ukraine”, so it would be logical to hold its premiere at that festival specifically.

So apart from the full-length film, are you planning to develop this story? Are there going to be any sequels about this girl and about Atex in general?

Well, actually this full-length film that we’re finishing up now will show a more complete picture. If the short film doesn’t show any other characters apart from Alina and the kids, the full-length film also depicts Alina’s relatives and Alina’s; it also shows Alina’s life and what she went through in the last two years almost, the difficulties she lived through. For the short version of the film, we tried to tell the story very concisely and make it easy to understand in every part of the world. And of course the short version does not allow us to tell everything, so you have to tell the story in a very dynamic way. Especially when we’re talking about the internet where people do not want to watch one minute of someone not saying anything to the camera - that would suit the standard [film] format. But I hope that people who watch the short film become interested in watching the full-length version.

We’re also thinking of doing a project with Current TV, which would be a series of documentary films about girls from different teams, their different stories. That would be like a TV series with a new episode every month. Every month a new little story would come out because we have ten different [women’s football] teams in the Premier League.

For me, women’s football is a miracle concept - you look at these girls who don’t receive millions like Ronaldo and Messi do, but they play with such passion! And you see that not only do they fight for football or want to perform well, for them it’s also a kind of a game of life, a survival game in this complicated world.

So in the film, it says that women’s football in Ukraine is in a very bad condition and there are only around 200 professional players across Ukraine. Most female football players end their career before they reach the age of 20. Do you see this situation changing? For better or for worse?

To be honest, I don’t really see any changes [in Ukrainian women’s football], but women’s football is getting bigger in Europe. In France, there are some very good teams. They have the Leon team, for example, which is a very famous men’s football team but they also have Leon women’s football team. We also need to integrate women’s football, women’s sports and bring it up to the same level [as men’s sports.] If we have Dynamo [Dynamo Kyiv, Kyiv’s most famous football team], we can also have a women’s Dynamo team.

In that way, we would increase the number of people wanting to watch women’s football and develop it. Even now, when I spoke to the Atex coach, she said that there are many girls, even from wealthy families, whose parents want them to take up football. So it’s coming to us in baby steps, but we need support from the Ministry of Youth and Sports, I don’t know… we need some help. Because really, these girls attend physical education universities, they play football, but after, they just have to face the real world. So they graduate physical education university and understand they now need to work and earn money and football will only earn them a small amount, while at the same time, they will get injuries that will require long periods of rehabilitation. And without substantial financial support, that would be very difficult. In that way, we would at least be able to prevent those girls from quitting, the ones who leave for financial reasons. 

READ MORE: How Ukrainian Children Become Film Directors At The Age Of 10

/By Maria Romanenko