Brazilian artist and street photographer Vik Muniz knew he wanted to do something big for the World Cup. Unlike most Brazilians, Muniz is neither a soccer player nor, frankly, much of a soccer fan. But his home country would soon be hosting the 2014 World Cup, and he wanted to celebrate it with something big.
Muniz is known in the art world for creating art out of unexpected things. In earlier projects, he has worked with dust, chocolate, grains of sand, wire, and garbage to create pieces and examine the discrepancy between art and the material from which it’s made.
In “This is Not a Ball,” co-directed by Muniz and documentary filmmaker Juan Rendon, the artist explores the single tool necessary for playing soccer: a ball. In their documentary, they travel around the world from the streets of Brazil to the fields of war-torn Sierra Leone to soccer ball factories in Pakistan to ask people: What does the ball mean to you?
Ultimately, Muniz used his new-found appreciation for the soccer ball in his art. He created two identical art installations, each made with 10,000 soccer balls he personally designed.
“This is Not a Ball” was produced by Televisa and Univision, which is one of Fusion’s parent companies–and is already available to watch on Netflix.
Fusion had a chance to speak with Rendon about making the film and what the significance of the ball is to soccer, to culture, and to the world.
Fusion: How did Vik Muniz get the idea for this art installation?
Juan Rendon: He wanted to explore the significance of the ball as an object. We started exploring that, he started coming up with an image, and then he decided how many balls he would need and would look good from a distance so he could photograph it. That was all a process, and that’s what the film shows: Look at the soccer ball and what it can mean, and from there, produce a monumental art piece.
How did you get involved with this project?
It was more than a year ago–actually December 2012–we decided we wanted to do something for the World Cup that was different. We knew everyone would be talking about the big players and the big teams, so we wanted to do something that would explore soccer in a little bit of a different way.
Fusion: And how did you settle on the soccer ball as your subject?
[Muniz] decided if he was going to explore soccer, he was going to explore the one material that was essential to soccer: The soccer ball. He decided to make a piece with 10,000 soccer balls in the style that he does. He usually does things with atypical materials. We started documenting the process of him learning about this object and the significance of it and the process of making this artwork.
You guys visited a lot of places in this film. Which was your favorite?
One of my favorite places was definitely Sierra Leone, where we met with the guys from the amputee soccer league. It was incredibly inspiring to see what these guys are doing with a soccer ball. They’re all victims of the 1990’s civil war. They were 10, 12, 15 years old when they got their legs cut off or their arms cut off by the militias.
Now these guys are 20- to 26-year-olds, and they’re fighting against a very heavy stigma that the country has for amputees. There were many people left without limbs, and these people become a burden on their country. They’re regarded as something to be dealt with rather than citizens and people that can help the country out.
Through this amputee soccer league, these kids are proving not only can they do things that whatever any able-bodied person can do, but they can do things beyond what we can do. If you see them play soccer with their crutches you can definitely see that. They move faster than you think they could and they do things you wouldn’t think they could. They’re proving through soccer they’re very useful members of society, they’re raising money with their games, and they’re spreading a message across the world about how bad war can be and the healing process that needs to come afterward.
One of the main things we discovered doing this film is that there is the professional soccer leagues, there are the nation teams and the World Cup and all these glamorous sides of soccer, but there’s also another side of soccer, where people who have no ambition to become professionals use it as a way to educate themselves, help their communities out, create communities where there is none, and better themselves.
You spoke to lots of different people in this documentary, including Marta and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. What did they contribute to the film?
Different perspectives on the soccer ball. When you ask a professional player what a soccer ball means to him, the answer is pretty predictable: It changed their lives, brought them out of poverty, made them millionaires and celebrities. When you ask an astrophysicist, when you ask people who sew these balls in Pakistan, when you ask a psychologist, you’re sure to get answers that get you thinking.
We thought, “Why not ask people who have no link to soccer in the traditional sense and see what they come up with?”
Neil DeGrasse Tyson brought up the molecule carbon 60, which is shaped exactly like a soccer ball.
He made all these wonderful connections between the shape of the sphere and the object of the ball and soccer, which were all very enlightening to us. He talked to us about spheres and the importance of the shape of the sphere in physics and in the universe: The way planets are shaped, the way stars are shaped, the way gravity seems to want to shape everything, it’s spherical. He also had some interesting reflections about soccer and how it’s enabled by our anatomy. It turns out we can play soccer because of our hips. Without the ball joint, which is exclusive to apes, we couldn’t play soccer.
So why are people so drawn to the ball and to play?
That’s a very interesting question that the documentary doesn’t reach a hard conclusion on. But we got some cool answers that lead us to some kind of conclusion: Soccer is very simple, it’s got 17 simple rules, it’s understandable to people who’ve never seen it before.
Soccer was instrumental during the Industrial Revolution, when people moved beyond the cities. They didn’t have any community to relate to, something that could help them meet people–basically an excuse to congregate. And soccer was used in a way. Soccer city teams were used to bring people together, to give people something to root for and to give people a sense of belonging. People could really identify themselves with the need to play.
Everybody can play soccer. Not necessarily well, but you get it. And that’s how it gradually started becoming more popular throughout Europe and in the new territories. The power of soccer is that it’s one of the most global things there is.
And now you are trying to make it even more global, right?
In finding soccer to be something that can change communities, we ran into a lot of incredible nonprofits doing incredible things for soccer. Beyond the film and beyond this documentary, we chose 12 organizations around the world that are doing wonderful things for soccer, and we’re sending the balls that Muniz designed and used in his monumental art pieces, for people to buy them and donate the money to these organizations.
We partnered up with an organization called Street Football World. They’re a very serious and validated organization, and they helped us pick these nonprofits doing cool stuff around the world. People can go to thisisnotaball.com to purchase one of these balls used in the artwork and donate the money to whichever organization they want.
ABOVE: Vik Muniz posing with one of the balls he designed for “This is Not a Ball.”
To me, it’s very interesting as a documentary filmmaker to see when films can transcend from being just a 90-minute experience to being something more than that, and I think that this campaign we’re doing with the soccer balls is the exact sort of thing I’d like to see films do more.