There are sports fans, and then there's the Northern Guard.
These profane, boisterous, impassioned Michiganders professed their love for Detroit City F.C. with the fervor and ferocity of an conquering army—complete with war helmets, tribal chants, battle flags and smoke bombs—before Covid-19 forced the suspension of the National Independent Soccer Association's season.
These aren't hooligans bent on destruction. Rather, they're a ragtag group of everyday folks bound together like a family by their unbridled exuberance for the team. They share their hopes and dreams, their personal wins and losses, drawing strength and sustenance from each other and their devotion to DCFC.
We get up close and personal with the Guard in "City Til I Die," an intense five-minute mini-doc from production house The Eightfold Collective and director Kurt Schneider:
"It's pretty consistent. Show up. Sing. Shout. Smoke. Swear—a lot," says Guard member Amanda Jaczkowski at one point in the film. "We get to express our emotions in ways we wouldn't be able to otherwise. There's no membership list. There's no fees. There's nothing. You walk up, you say, 'I wanna be part of Northern Guard,' and we say, 'Welcome.' "
Borrowing its title from Manchester City fandom in the U.K., the film captures the loving, supportive aspect of the Guard through the story of Jaczkowski's traumatic July 2017 traffic accident. A gravel truck hit the young woman while she was riding her bike.
"Most people didn't think I was gonna make it," she recalls. "I couldn't talk. I had tubes in my mouth. But the next morning I was writing to them [her fellow DCFC supporters] and one of the first things I wrote was, 'What day is it? Did I miss the game?' "
Jaczkowski's main goal during her grueling physical therapy was to reunite with the Guard. Against long odds, nine months later she returned to the stands. Decked out in club gear, she rose through the colored smoke like some priestess of the pitch, hoisting a bullhorn, leading frenzied cheers.
"Amanda is kind of a testament to who so many of us are individually—that we're crazy enough to love the club this much," says Dean Simmers, another DCFC fan who shows up in the film. In one scene, he reverently dons team colors, a crucifix on the wall behind him. He looks for all the world like an acolyte preparing for a deeply religious experience.
Indeed, for these fans—much like the backers of Liverpool F.C. we met in this Standard Chartered documentary a few months ago—the games serve as rituals that bind them as a community.
For now, the faithful wait impatiently for the season to resume, perhaps in the fall. But even while the club is on hiatus, Guard members feel the abiding connection of their mutual passion, part of something greater than themselves.
A passion project for Schneider, "City Til I Die" recently dropped online, a balm for sports-starved fans nationwide. Below, the director, whose brand credits include Nike, GMC and Wells Fargo, chats with Muse about making the film.
Muse: How'd you learn about the team?
Kurt Schneider: About two years before we began filming, I saw a picture online that showed a mass of crazed-looking individuals immersed in a cloud of colorful smoke. It was a visually compelling image I just wasn't able to shake. I looked into it and discovered that these crazed individuals were actually fans of the Detroit City Football Club. After going to my first game, I knew that I had to find a way to tell part of their story.
We knew that just showing up and filming the chaos would be visually appealing, but we also knew that there was a lot more going on than what the outside world saw. My producer, Nico Poalillo, got us in touch with Andrew Goode, who runs a blog on the team called Boys in Rouge, and he helped us get to the right people. The first person that Andrew thought of was Amanda Jaczkowski, a group member who had been run over by a semi-truck the previous year and went on to make a miraculous recovery.
Did it take some convincing to get her to participate?
Amanda is an incredibly kind, tough and open person, so getting her to open up was not really a challenge at all. Probably the biggest problem we had was getting her to not laugh when she told us the story of getting run over by the truck. I was trying to get her to be more emotional as she retold it, but eventually I just gave up and I had to cut out her laughter in the edit. Did I mention she was tough?
When did you shoot?
Filming took place over the summer of 2018 in Hamtramck, Michigan. Our crew was very small. For the majority of the shoot it was just the director, producer, DP and sound.
Did the charged atmosphere present challenges?
For the first few games, the majority of the fans didn't know who we were or what we were filming. In the past they had been burned by people who filmed them and then put out negative articles. So we got a lot of people standing in front of us, flipping middle fingers, and some harsh words. Ironically, a lot of the clips that we thought were ruined takes ended up making it into the final edit because it was really just the group being themselves.
Another challenge was just the physical aspect of filming in the hottest part of the summer and breathing in heavy, colorful smoke. The combination of the heat and smoke made for a pretty nauseating experience.
Why did you make the film?
There are already a handful of films that showed the Northern Guard from an outsider's perspective, so we wanted to try and approach it differently. As I got to know some of the group members, what really fascinated me about them was that behind all the smoke, masks and F-bombs was one of the most supportive communities I had ever seen. Telling the story of Amanda was the perfect way to show the true power of a loving community in action.
What does "City Til I Die" say about sports, life, the shared human experience?
During the interviews, during filming, during editing, all I kept asking myself was, "Do I care this much about anything?" I think at its core, this film is about passion, and the community that shared passion creates. Many people go through their lives with hobbies, things they like, etc. But they don't really have anything that they would classify as a passion. My hope is that this film will inspire people to go out and find something. Something they can get excited about and not feel like they're weird for doing. Because if you find something you love, odds are there's going to be a lot of other people who feel the same way. And those people, directly or indirectly, might just save your life.