“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” – Bill Shankly
These famous words, never intended to be taken literally, highlight the amazing power of a sport that captivates the entire world. In Maya Zinshtein’s documentary Forever Pure, we can observe the nightmarish downsides to this immense potential. With amazing access to every side, Zinshtein turns her camera to the escalating events at Beitar Jerusalem, one of Israel’s most popular teams, during the 2012/13 season. The beautiful game itself however is pushed into the background by far bigger issues.
Everything is going great on and off the pitch, until the club’s Russian-billionaire owner decides to reinforce the squad with two Muslim players from Chechnya. What follows is a depressing cautionary tale about what happens, if hatred is ignored and allowed to grow. Beitar’s fanatical supporters, aptly named “La Familia,” are infamous for their controversial politics and pride themselves on being the only team to never field an Arab player (you can imagine how far to the right of the political spectrum they are, when even Benjamin Netanyahu has to distance himself).
Their reaction to the Chechen signings is toxic. Racist chants and vile abuse replace the celebrations and songs echoing from the stands of their home ground Teddy Stadium. Even within their own ranks, heroes turn into villains overnight – the fans turn on their goalkeeper and team captain for publicly backing the Muslim players. The manager and the chairman suffer the same fate, while the sour atmosphere begins to affect the results on the pitch.
The documentary does really well to cover these developments from several angles. First of all, we get the perspective from inside the dressing room. The two Chechens, mere kids at 19 and 23 respectively, away from home for the first time, look like frightened deer in the headlights. Their teamamtes, many of them locals caught between the fronts, are notable for their silence.
This legitimising silence by moderates and liberals has allowed hate to take root and grow exponentially, a problem that affects the Israeli society as a whole. Maya Zinshtein tracks the history Beitar, once a political symbol for second-class citizens, which has become a propaganda tool for populist politicians. Afraid to lose votes or support, no one condemns racism and the ideas of a loud minority are allowed to spread to a silent majority. The most chilling moment in the film comes when La Familia calls for the boycott of a home game and only a few hundred tickets are sold – a frightening display of fan power. The organisation’s influence is far greater than expected and has widened beyond the ultras with the hateful chants and “forever pure” banners.
The final piece in the puzzle is the most curious one: the club management and specifically the owner. Arcadi Gaydamak, a Russian billionaire suspected of arms dealing and other shady activities, is like a caricature of a Bond villain. Following a failed bid to become mayor of Jerusalem in 2008, Gaydamak lost in interest in Beitar and now delights in revealing his business dealings with the Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov as well as his Machiavellian plot to expose the real face of Israeli bigotry. It is easy to imagine him smirking to himself, white cat in his lap, while the chaos unfolds below. He has since given up ownership of the club.
Forever Pure, conventional in form and style, is a depressing warning that radicalism must not be ignored and that initiatives such as the UK's Kick It Out campaign are essential. The film holds up a mirror to a divided, destructive Israel with no solution in sight.