Almost four years ago, San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Paul Hirschberger began learning all he could about the North American-style of tackle football that is being played in Israel.
He has turned the research into his first sports film, “Touchdown Israel,” about how the growing sport is bridging cultural gaps in Israel.
“I was looking for my next film project and in doing my research I had read a feature story in The New York Times about tackle football being a growing sport in Israel,” Hirschberger said. “I contacted Andrew Gershman and Ari Louis of Israel Sports Radio, who covered football in Israel, and that began my nearly three-year odyssey to tell the story of football in Israel.”
He decided to use much of his own money to tell a story that has many facets to it and showcases how sports can be a tool to bring people together as teammates.
“What I ended up with was ‘Touchdown Israel,’ a feature-length documentary that presents the broader religious and cultural diversity that is Israel and illustrates how sports can be both metaphor and unifier for the world around it,” said Hirschberger. “American football has set down real roots in the Holy Land. The playing levels vary widely, but the cast of characters is utterly compelling: Israeli Jews, Arabs and Christians as well as Americans living in Israel and religious settlers.”
He added that the game is played in a uniquely Jewish way, with some players putting helmet on over their yarmulkes and some player will davening before the game starts.
An important part of the film, Hirschberger said, is the history of the game, which began in 1988 with the establishment of the American Football in Israel (AFI) group. The group grew to more than 90 contact and non-contact flag football teams. In 2005, the AFI established the Israeli Football League (IFL), which is devoted to American-style full-contact tackle football.
“They play an eight-man game [instead of 11 like in the U.S.] because the fields are smaller than the regulation 100-yard football fields that we are used to here in the United States,” he said.
Hirschberger credits Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and his late wife, Myra, for advancing the game and sports in Israel in general. Although he had some safety concerns initially, Kraft worked with sponsors to build fields and get uniforms for teams in the league. The league honored him in its name, the Kraft Family Israel Football League.
“Kraft Field is likely the only place in the entire Middle East you’ll find Palestinians and Jewish settlers embracing after a big win,” Hirschberger said. The IFL has grown from 25 players in Tel Aviv to a thriving league of more 600 players and 11 teams throughout Israel, he added.
The 2014 league is comprised of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa Sabres, the Tel Aviv Pioneers, the Ramat Hasharon Hammers, the Jerusalem Lions, the Judean Rebels, the Jerusalem Kings, the Haifa Underdogs, the Beersheva Black Swarm, the Petach Tikva Troopers, the Northern Stars and the Rehovot Silverbacks.
“In many ways, Israelis are perfectly suited to play the game of football,” explained Hirschberger. “They have all served their country in the military and love the strategy that goes into the game along with the physical contact.”
While covering the football side of the story was interesting, Hirschberger was also inspired by watching Israeli, Arab, Christian, Thai and Palestinian players work together as teammates. The film focuses on the friendship of three particular players: Jeremy Sable, a Conservative Jew who played youth football in Philadelphia but wouldn’t play on Shabbat and gave the sport up until his family moved to Israel, Saud Kassas an Arab from Jaffa, and Roni Srisuren, a Christian from Thailand who lives with his family in Israel.
“I got the three of them together in a bar and we just talked about everything,” Hirschberger said. “Each young man spoke in detail about growing up with a total lack of understanding of the religion and backgrounds of others. Yet, it was through football these three men became friends for life.”
Hirschberger is taking the film on the festival circuit before he releases it nationwide. He will start at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, head to the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and then the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. He is in discussions with film distributors and hopes to announce local showings soon.
To see previews of “Touchdown Israel” and get the latest news on where it is playing, go to touchdown israel.com.