At the start of Nike Football's four-minute film "From the Grounds Up," Hackney Wick FC founder Bobby Kasanga bids youngsters on a soccer pitch to close their eyes and visualize themselves in five or 10 years.
"What is it you want to achieve?" he asks. "What is it you want to be? I want to let you guys know, you can do it, because I'm a living testament to that."
Kasanga recounts his days as a promising junior player, which ended when he joined a violent street gang. After serving eight years in prison, he emerged in 2015 to start his semi-professional soccer club in suburban London. Today, fielding men's and women's squads, along with a youth academy, the organization has become a key player in the community. Kasanga won praise for helping underprivileged kids transform their lives and plan for the future.
Directed in an understated style by Jess Kohl, the film marks the first installment of Nike's "Think Outside the Blocks" series, which shines a spotlight on people in football who are going above and beyond to make a difference. Production companies Prettybird U.K. and Girls on Film developed the project.
Whether pumping up his players or reflecting on his past, Kasanga's winning, upbeat-but-intense personality carries the day. And his personal story packs considerable gravitas. The frames shine with authenticity, and Kohl's low-key, documentary approach keeps the proceedings nicely grounded. While inspirational and uplifting, these four minutes never get treacly or melodramatic. They feel appropriately real.
It helps that we also meet Hackney players, volunteers and fans. (Behold the "Wickerman" with his megaphone around the 2:15 mark.) They serve as a colorful supporting cast in this tale of everyday people bonding through soccer to improve their lives.
The :40 edit below omits such details, but conveys the same hopeful message:
"It was amazing coming on board a project which had such a moving story attached to it, and to be a part of crafting the approach," Kohl tells Muse. "Bobby Kasanga was into doing the film from the start," she says, as he already has a relationship with Nike, which sponsors Hackney Wick's home kit.
Kohl says she decided to frame the subject matter using Kasanga's own voice after getting to know him during pre-production. The pep-talk set-up feels a tad familiar, but resonates. This guy's narrative is so compelling, and his manner so earnest yet unassuming, it's impossible not to take heed.
Shooting took place in and around Hackney Wick's practice field at Mabley Green. "We only had one long day, so it was a challenge getting everything we needed to tell this story, and it meant sacrificing certain shots, which is always tough," says Kohl. "Wrangling a group of non-actor kids on a cold night in Hackney is always going to be a challenge. Luckily, Bobby was there to keep the kids entertained and motivated."
Prettybird executive producer and co-founder Juliette Larthe believes the film "isn't just marketing," but stands on it sown as a vehicle "to educate, entertain and inform."
"To encourage sport is to encourage mental health for individuals and groups," she says.
Similar themes inform several recent campaigns. TBWA Singapore's film about Liverpool FC for top sponsor Standard Chartered stresses the deep, motivational ties between the team and and its fans, while Gillette's spot with Manchester City's Raheem Sterling pits teamwork and sportsmanship against racism. A film from ANZ in New Zealand positions athletics as a way to foster mutual understanding. And last year's doc about an American football program in Los Angeles—backed by the L.A. Rams and Albertsons—parallels "From the Grounds Up" in many ways, portraying competition as a pathway to hope and self respect.
As it turns out, Kasanga faces a fresh challenge once the season ends next month. Hackney Wick FC might get booted from its home turf at Haringey Borough FC Stadium. That could force the team to rebrand in another location, though Kasanga hopes to secure space in or near Hackney and keep the franchise's identity intact.
"It's one of the issues that Bobby is currently fighting for, and one I hope gets highlighted and solved," Kohl says.
Director: Jess Kohl @jess.kohl
Producer: Nikola Vasakova @nikolavasakova
Executive producer: Juliette Larthe @juliette_larthe
Production company: Girls in Film @girlsinfilm_gif & PRETTYBIRD @prettybirdpic
1st AD: Eno Enefiok @enoleawesome
DOP: Steve Annis @steveannisdop
Steadicam: James Burgess @jamesburgess3
Focus Puller: Eira Wyn Jones @caws_a_cracyrs
2nd AC: Kairo Jones @kairofilm
Cam Trainee: Joe Medlock @joemedlock
Gaffer: Alex Gibbon
Grip: Aaron Porter @aa.ron.porter
Sound: Bridgitte Bradshaw
DIT: Ashley Hicks @i.love.hue
Runner/drivers: Ben Cole @benxcole
Sophie Nejad @sophienejad
Photographer: Blue Laybourne @bluelaybourne
Driver: Anthony Bugge
Editor: Gary Forrester @thequarryedit
Online editor: Kit Harwood
Grade: Simon Bourne @framestore
Music: Roger Goula @mannersmcdade
Additional cinematography: Thomas Hole @thomas_.hole
Camera assistant: Jerome James King @jeromejamesking
DIT: Ellie Bright
Additional sound: Chi Limpiroj @chi_limpiroj
Runner / Driver: Josh Govett
Jess Kohl is represented by Prettybird c/o Mia Powell Mia@prettybird.co