Oct. 8, 2010

By Craig Chval

To most college students, graduating means new beginnings and new adventures. But for many college athletes, leaving college behind also means leaving behind something that has been a central part of their lives for over a decade – competitive sports.

For a pair of former collegiate soccer stars, negotiating that transition forms the backdrop for a fascinating story they have shared on film. Pelada, which made its world premiere in March at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, is a tale of two former players not ready to be done, chasing the game.

Luke Boughen starred as a midfielder and defender for the Notre Dame soccer team from 2001-04, helping the Irish to four straight NCAA tournament berths, including an appearance in the round of 16 in 2003, when Notre Dame also captured the Big East conference tournament championship. A two-time member of the Big East Academic All-Star team, Boughen was initially leery of leaving the warm weather of his native California for South Bend.

“I was a Californian and wasn’t really keen on the Midwest,” he admits. “But I grew to love it over the years.”

Boughen’s co-star in the film is now his wife, former Duke standout Gwendolyn Oxenham, who earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Notre Dame after graduating from Duke. The couple met, fittingly, on a pick-up soccer field at Notre Dame.

The movie’s title is a Portuguese word that translates as “naked,” which is also what pick-up soccer games are called in Brazil, where Boughen spent part of his junior year at Notre Dame studying sustainable development and social entrepreneurship. He played in daily peladas in Rio de Janeiro, integrating into the local neighborhood and learning to speak enough Portuguese to pass his classes.

Unbeknownst to Boughen, the seed was planted for Pelada.

The seed began to take root when Oxenham was trying to plot her future while writing a book as the recipient of Nicholas Sparks Prize, awarded to a Notre Dame post-graduate to finish her first book. Brainstorming with another former Duke soccer player, Rebekah Fergusson, the duo identified film , soccer and travel at the top of a list of their greatest passions.

From there, Boughen was an easy sell. The three, along with Duke alumnus Ryan White, developed the idea to portray the essence of “football” around the world by capturing on film peladas played in a variety of settings across the globe.

Over a two-year period, the four made three trips to four continents, to find, participate in and film peladas in 25 countries. Fergusson and White were behind the cameras and Boughen and Oxenham were the stars – Americans who used their love and talent for soccer as a universal admission ticket.

“It was always the kind of the idea that Gwendolyn and I would join the games and by doing that, it’s not just that you’re documenting the game, but you’re part of the game with the people,” explains Boughen.

“Lots of times, people would be very skeptical, `The Gringo … the girl,’ but because we share the same passion for the game, that comes out when you play, and it ended up that they just wanted to help us out.”

The film has managed to reach beyond its obvious audience of soccer aficionados, which is something Boughen finds particularly gratifying. One of the film’s early screenings was for a group of U.S. military veterans, who provided an enthusiastic response, despite Boughen’s apprehensions.

“That was our toughest audience, but our most rewarding one,” he says.

Boughen chuckles when sharing the story of a group of elderly women in Florida who accidently found themselves in a showing of Pelada, and were so moved that they came back the next day.

“People connect to different things in the film,” Boughen observes, based upon largely upon question-and-answer sessions following many of the screenings.

“One theme is that Gwendolyn and I are these has-beens who are struggling to give up our dreams, and a lot of people can relate to that,” he offers. “Part of it is about finding something else … finding a new dream.”

Boughen also points to the variety of locales, the cinematography of Fergusson and White, which he fairly describes – notwithstanding his bias – as “pretty amazing” and the unmistakable sense of adventure.

Indeed, in their quest to find and tell the untold story of soccer, Boughen and Oxenham stray far from the beaten path, although the film also contains footage of games played against backdrops such as the Eiffel Tower in France and The Pyramids in Egypt.

The film depicts Boughen and Oxenham paying a bribe to gain access to a game behind prison walls in Bolivia, where they experienced perhaps the highest level of play on all of their journeys.

Oxenham, who is very forthcoming in the film about her years of striving to be the very best and then struggling with the absence of that ever-present goal in her life, admits on camera to a trace of nervousness behind the gates of the prison, but also confesses to a great rush of adrenaline inspired by the high level of play.

“It’s like playing in a big game again,” she says, almost ruefully.

Brazil was the first stop on their adventure, in large part due to their familiarity with the country and the peladas.

“I love going to Brazil,” says Boughen. “Getting beat by eight-year-olds is fine with me … I’ve learned to deal with it.”

In Brazil, Boughen and Oxenham spent time with former international women’s star (and Oxenham’s former teammate on Santos FC) Nene, who expressed great contentment in her retirement from professional soccer and her new-found career painting dolls in a factory.

The duo also took the Rio de Janeiro subway to the last stop for a pelada in the roughest part of the city, prompting a policeman to shrug, “It’s your life, not mine.”

Not only did Boughen and Oxenham survive, the were undaunted, making Iran the final stop on their odyssey. In addition to a rigorous set of hurdles just to gain entry to the country, Oxenham had to deal with the Iranian government’s prohibition of women playing soccer with men.

As Boughen plays his first pick-up game in Tehran, Oxenham stands along the field, wearing a hijab. At a second location, the men agree to let Oxenham play, and all seems to go well. But later, they learn that they have been reported to the Iranian government, and will have to meet with officials before they are allowed to leave the country.

Iranian officials examined all of the footage shot by Fergusson and White, and after several hours of conversations, which eventually turned to sharing soccer stories back and forth, the foursome was allowed to leave Iran – with all of their footage.

It was in Iran that Boughen proposed to Oxenham, and the two were married in June 2010, just three months after Pelada’s world premiere. Meanwhile, Boughen, who is shown briefly in the film working on an outdoor billboard as he is both trying to figure out his future and working to obtain funding to produce Pelada, is now in his second year of law school at the University of California-Irvine. His new bride continues to work to complete her first book while teaching English and writing courses at Orange Coast College.

As they pursue the rest of their lives, Boughen and Oxenham also criss-cross the country attending screenings to help offset debt incurred in producing the film, which won the Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Filmmaking Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival. Anyone interested in purchasing a copy of the film or supporting the post-production costs can visit www.pelada-movie.com.

In addition to once-in-a-lifetime experiences and considerable debt, Boughen and Oxenham returned home with a different perspective.

“That’s something we try to explore a little bit in the film,” Boughen says. “Gwendolyn especially was the type that was always playing to win, to go up the ladder, to play on the national team, to develop as much as she can. Now, that’s no longer possible, and the game is all that’s left.”

“All over the world, people are playing for nothing,” reflects Oxenham. “For no other reason than to play.”