Michael Zimbalist ’02 Returns to Middletown for Screening of his Award-Winning Documentary
On Friday afternoon, the Goldsmith Family Cinema featured a screening of “The Two Escobars,” an award-winning documentary by Michael Zimbalist ’02 and his brother Jeffrey, as part of the Center for the Americas’ 2011 Americas Forum entitled “Sports Documentary Filmmakers in the Americas: The Politics of Access.”
The film, which was part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series, has won nearly universal acclaim, and has been featured at many of the world’s most important film festivals, including Cannes and Tribeca. It was nominated for the Best Documentary Screenplay award by the Writers’ Guild of America and the Best Documentary award by the Sports Emmys.
Despite its advance billing, the screening did not attract a large audience. However, for those who did attend, the film did not disappoint. A riveting tale of the intertwined nature of soccer, crime, and politics in Colombia in the late 1980s and early ’90s, OThe Two EscobarsT profiles the career arcs of two of the most influential Colombian men of the era. Soccer prodigy Andrés Escobar was raised in a middle-class family in Medellín, the same city that housed the infamous and extremely violent drug cartel run by Pablo Escobar (no relation). Andrés rose quickly through the Colombian professional soccer ranks, as the leagues he was competing in were flourishing due to an influx of money from drug lords like Pablo.
As the U.S. and Colombian authorities began to fight back against the atrocities committed by Pablo Escobar and other drug lords, the Colombian national soccer team was on an unprecedented run of success. The drug wars horrified the Colombian people, not only because of the violence they were experiencing first-hand, but also because of the barbaric image the drug lords had brought upon their country. As the national team rose through the world rankings approaching the 1994 World Cup, finally becoming the South American champion, the drug war escalated just as quickly. Pablo Escobar was finally killed in December 1993 by the Colombian national police, but the violence failed to cease.
When the World Cup arrived, the pressure on the team to perform well and bring some positive attention to its country finally overwhelmed it. The players couldn’t buy a goal. After losing to Romania and then the United States, they were eliminated without advancing to the second round. The only score of the game against the U.S. came when Andrés Escobar mistimed a defensive clearance, accidentally knocking the ball right into the goal Colombia was guarding.
He was devastated, but refused to hide back home in Medellín. Just 10 days later, he and some friends went to a club for a night out. As they were leaving, he got into a confrontation with three men and a woman. Two of the men shot him six times, killing him as he was sitting in his car and setting off a national outpouring of grief.
After the screening, Michael Zimbalist ’02 spoke to the audience about his experience creating the film. He and his brother lived in Medellín for six months, cultivating relationships with all of the surviving main players in the story, digging through dozens of extensive film and photo archives, and gauging local opinion on the story and its characters.
All this hard work paid off; the film features extensive interviews with the most important players in the story who survive today, including Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man (currently in Colombia’s highest-security prison), Andrés Escobar’s teammates from the national team, and the immediate family members of both men. It also features incredible video footage and photos of nearly every event discussed in the film, including shots from almost every game Andrés played in professionally, fascinating home video taken in Pablo’s mansions, an extremely rare aerial shot of Pablo playing soccer in prison, and even security camera footage of Andrés being shot.
“We wanted to bring the film to life,” Zimbalist said. “We didn’t want it to be a sort of History Channel documentary with talking heads.”
The other problem the Zimbalist brothers faced was trying to filter the stories of both Escobars to get objective interpretations of their personalities. By all accounts, the saintly nature of Andrés described in the film was genuine. He was universally noted for his selfless nature off the field, and for his unflappable sportsmanship on it.
Pablo was a much more polarizing figure. According to Michael Zimbalist, people in Medellín still revere the drug lord for his rise from poverty to become a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the rich authorities and building schools and soccer fields in the slums of his hometown. At the same time, however, he was responsible for over 5,000 deaths, cementing his legacy as a bloodthirsty drug baron who also improved the lives of thousands of others.
In just 14 months, the Zimbalist brothers condensed this complicated, muddled story into a cohesive, fairly straightforward narrative. Michael Zimbalist said that most of the Colombians the filmmakers spoke to believe there is a lesson to be learned from the tragic tale: that out of ashes, hopefulness and growth can take hold. The violent years culminating in the death of Andrés Escobar finally made the Colombian government realize the problems they had, and eventually his death led to the nearly total eradication of the drug lords. The film does a wonderful job of driving home its main point: sometimes, sports really are more significant than we give them credit for.