Best known as a film producer with a career stretching about a decade and 15 films under her belt, Rachel Ramsay sits on the director’s chair for the very first time. She’s in good company. Her debut feature is co-directed by James Erskine, an experienced British documentarist who has made nearly 40 movies this century. Copa 71 premiered earlier this year at IDFA, and it’s being handled by Dogwoof. The filthy genius film documents the incredible history of the first Women’s World Cup (including the biggest match in the history of women’s sport) , an event shockingly erased from history.
Most people think that the first Women’s World Cup took place in 1991. This enlightening and impeccably assembled documentary reveals that women had an intimate relationship with the most popular sport on earth much earlier, and that they were violently removed from the pitch for shocking reasons. The film reveals that there were in excess of 100 female football teams in the UK in 1917, and it was only in 1921 that they were shut following false medical claims that the sport could hurt their ovaries. The absurd, pseudo-scientific claim travelled far, with Italy and Brazil criminalising women who dared to engage in the activity. The patriarchy sent women back to the kitchen in order to bake cookies for their husbands. It mocked and degraded female footballers. And that was just the beginning of long history of oppression.
Victor sat down with Rachel at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival, where the film showed in the International Spectacular section.
Victor Fraga – Copa 71 claims that the footage was kept secret for 50 years. Could you please tell us more about your research process, and how you compiled the long-missing material?
Rachel Ramsay – We knew that the tournament had been broadcast live using the same infrastructure as the 1970 men’s World Cup. We had about 80 seconds of the footage we found on AP. After that, we had to keep exploring in order to find out who had any original recordings. One of the most incredible moments of the whole filming process was just a few weeks before we finished the film. We had an answer to a social media call that we put out in Mexico. It said: “have you or any of your families watched the 1971 tournament? And do you have any footage?”, And this guy got in touch and he had been digitising his grandfather’s Super 8 collection, and he just sent a Vimeo link. And we were like; “Whaaat???”. So all of the shots from the stands or from the touchline are from Pablo Asuela’s grandfather. He very kindly allowed us to take the originals and upscale them to 4K. And in exchange, all he wanted was a donation to his ecological sanctuary in Northern Mexico.
VF – What is the relevance of showing Copa 71 in the country [Saudi Arabia]that has invested large sums of money primarily in men’s football, and where a women’s football team was first established last year?
RR – I think that question kind of answers itself. I think it’s clear why it’s important to show this film in this country. I won’t speak so much to men’s football, which I think is on a different scale and level of politics than the women’s game right now. Specially here. But we can say that this is big for a country that has women’s sport, women’s sport being played in public, in its infancy. There is a space to learn from so many of the mistakes that have been made before. So many things have been taken for granted.
VF – Such as?
RR – Well, final message of the film is that you can’t you can’t take hard-won rights for granted. Just because you feel like the world has changed it doesn’t mean things can’t roll back very badly.
VF – Your film denounces Fifa’s dirty tactics. Did Fifa directly or indirectly interfere or attempt to boycott your film?
RR – Fifa have no interest in the tournament that we’ve been covering because, as they’ve said, they didn’t own it. Yeah. We also had to check with Fifa when we found the footage and we wanted to make sure that we’re not stealing footage of Fifa today.
VF – So they didn’t try to pull your rug?
RR – They didn’t pull the rug from under us. They knew that we were making it because we had to license other footage from them from the 1970 Men’s World Cup and from the Women’s World Cup recently. That is all Fifa’s footage. So they know that we were engaged with that.
VF – Presumably you had to pay a lot of money for that?
RR – Of course they wouldn’t give us the footage for free. We’re in the early stages of screening this film around the world. I’m not quite sure if people have watched it yet. We’ll have to find out [how Fifa reacts].
VF – Did you try to interview them?
RR – Not with regards to what they did 50 years ago. It was a very different organisation then. We know that, regardless of what’s happened, Fifa have been investing hugely in the women’s game in the last few years.
VF – The Mexican players of the 1971 World Cup were never remunerated. That has not changed entirely, has it? I mean, the salary of female footballers is vastly inferior to male footballers. Do you have anything to say about that?
RR – Yes. I think one of the takeaways of of the film is that the themes that we’re discussing – new women’s physicality, women’s role outside of the home, financial independence and equal pay – these were all conversations that were happening in the tournament over 50 years ago. And how much of that has changed in 50 years?
VF – The Mexican team gave England very warm heartfelt condolences after they defeated us. Yet England gave our own team a very cold reception upon return home. Why do you think that is?
RR – I think the establishment in Britain believed that those women had no rights in a tournament on that scale publicly in the Azteca Stadium. They saw the women as stepping outside of the space that they’d been they’d been given. And that applies to so much of society.
VF – Did that never reach British audiences at the time?
RR – It was it was reported in the press, but at the time it was so clearly not a space that women were allowed to inhabit.
VF – Is it fair to say that the Brits or the English were more sexist in that context than the Mexicans?
RR – I think it’s difficult to quantify what sexism really means in this context. I think that the Mexican people were just excited that they were given the space to enjoy the spectacle, and they did so.
VF – What about the Lionesses? They’re not in the film, are they?
RR – The current Lionesses are not in the film, no. That’s because we had a strong English presence already, and we’re interested in making it a very international idea. And also the Lionesses, you know, women’s football in England on a national level is still more recent than it was in the US [American footballer and two-time Fifa Women’s World Cup champion Brandi Chastain is a prominent character in Copa 71]. So we’re interested in what was happening in the ’90s, which was really led by the US, and the sort of the current resurgence of of women’s football, also known as women’s soccer.
VF – Why do you think happened in the US of all places?
RR – That’s a whole different film. It has to do with Title IX [a federal law] in the 1970s, which required an equal distribution of funds and colleges, which was then extended to sports. It’s the story of Billie Jean King. It’s the story of Battle of the Sexes (Valerie Faris/Jonathan Dayton, 2017). It’s a progression. Also, soccer did not have a space in the US to be taken by men as it was not considered the most important sport for men..
Rachel is pictured at the top of this article. She is pictured along Victor Fraga below. Images by Victor Fraga.