Local football culture explored in Sundance documentary
January 20, 2015
Opening night of the Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City will have a local flare to it.
"In Football We Trust," a documentary by filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn, both Salt Lake City natives, will premiere on Friday night at The Grand Theatre at 7 p.m.
The film, which focuses on Polynesian football players and the pressures they face to succeed, hits home for Vainuku, who comes from a Polynesian family.
"I had grown up here in the community," he said. "My parents are Polynesian and I grew up playing football until about my sophomore year. Football has really just become a part of our culture — all my cousins played, all my friends who were Polynesian played since we were in little league and we all really had hopes to play college ball and play in the NFL."
According to statistics cited in the movie, Polynesian athletes are 28 times more likely to play in the NFL than any other minority group. NFL defensive tackles Haoli Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens and Star Lotulelei of the Carolina Panthers are just two examples of famous Polynesian players with Utah ties.
However, just as importantly, for every success story, there are stories of players who didn’t make it. Vainuku’s family experienced that disappointment firsthand.
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"It was my younger uncle that was a tragic story for my family, personally," he said. "He was an NFL hopeful, Joe Katoa, a lot of people locally know him — he played at Highland High School in 1997. He ended up going to prison and just got out after 10 years.
"That experience was something that was part of my life. Years later, I found an opportunity to tell a story of these Polynesians that were making it in the NFL. Nobody really understood what the culture was behind it."
Cohn was living in Los Angeles when she was approached to get involved in the documentary and jumped at the chance to come home and tell stories she knew very well, too. Despite a shoestring budget and five years of hard work, Cohn said she thoroughly enjoyed the process.
"For me, this is a familiar story," she said. "I grew up here and watched a lot of my friends go through the football programs. To be able to capture some of those really vulnerable and intimate moments, that’s a lot of sacrifice and a lot of time. But there were several moments in the film that made it all worth it. It’s been worth it the whole time."
Vainuku said it was extremely rewarding to find out the documentary had been accepted by Sundance.
"It really was just surreal," he said. "Other people that have gone through getting that phone call know it really is a surreal moment and it validates the fact that we have a good story and we worked hard on something that was meaningful, truthful and important to us. It was worth the sacrifice and enduring the times that would have caused a lot of filmmakers to give up."
In addition to its debut at The Grand Theatre on Friday, "In Football We Trust," a U.S. Documentary Premiere, will also be shown a couple times in Park City.
"We’ll be doing a Q&A at all three screenings," Vainuku said.
With all three screenings of the documentary already sold out, Vainuku and Cohn are trying to raise money through Kickstarter so they can show the movie to a nationwide audience.
"We sold out in the first couple hours," Cohn said. "That’s very humbling and incredible. We are working to make sure all members of our community can see this film and we’re starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding to be able to do that."
To support "In Football We Trust", visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/815346089/in-football-we-trust-a-sundance-documentary-premie . To learn more about the film, visit http://www.infootballwetrustmovie.com/ .
"In Football We Trust" screenings
Friday, Jan. 23 – The Grand Theatre – 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 27 – Egyptian Theatre – 6 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 31 – Redstone Cinema 7 – 6 p.m.