The feature-length documentary Sons of Ben, which finally enjoys a digital release today, manages an important filmmakers’ feat. You don’t need to know or even care much about its specific subject matter to get swept up in the human drama of the story. In other words, it’s one of the best kinds of sports documentaries—at its heart, it’s not really about sports.
As the name indicates, of course, director Jeffrey Bell’s debut full-length film follows the Philadelphia Union’s supporters’ group from the beginning — before they even had a team to support. MLS followers will already likely know the story, but, as the movie shows, a few soccer diehards, obsessed with the game and with bringing it to their city, eventually convinced the league to award them an expansion team.
What follows along the way yields the stuff of sports-fan legend, from SoB beating their literal drums at everything even tangentially soccer-related in their area, to cheering from their own non-existent team at other MLS games. Among the best moments? Their infamous appearance in the stands at the 2007 MLS Cup final, when their own “Phi-la-del-phia!” chants rattled fans supporting the teams actually competing, the New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo.
At its core, though, this is a movie about human obsession and perseverance, and about how lasering in on a goal can even threaten your family, friendships, and health. When, in the film, the Union are finally officially announced, it’s easy to understand why one main character breaks down in tears.
So yes, Sons of Ben can sweep a viewer up, regardless of interest in MLS or soccer in general. It’s well worth a view this weekend, and it’s available for your instant gratification needs on digital platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Xbox in the US and Canada. It’s also on many cable-company VOD services – check sonsofbenmovie.com for a full list.
Earlier this week we caught up with director Bell about the making of the movie, and its long journey over the past year from the festival circuit to consumer release. Here’s what he had to say.
Image courtesy of Gravitas
MLSsoccer.com: What was your involvement with North American soccer before you started working on the film? How did you get interested in the story?
Jeffrey Bell: I grew up outside of Philadelphia. I wasn’t a huge soccer fan, though I always appreciated the sport—but growing up in that area, it’s pretty much dominated by American football. You also passionately care about the other [Philadelphia] teams as well.
I moved out to L.A. for my career, and around 2008, one of my editors was a huge MLS fan. He knew I was a Philly sports fan, so he was like, “Hey man, Philly got a team.” So he sent me this link, and front and center is [Sons of Ben co-founder] Bryan James with Commissioner Don Garber.
I was like, “Oh my god, Bryan James!” I grew up with him! We grew up on the same street and went to junior high and high school together, but after college we kind of lost touch. So I reached out to him to say I was proud and congratulations, after I had read up on the story of the Sons of Ben.
The thing that fascinated me was that these three guys started a supporters’ group for a team that didn’t exist. That fascinated me in itself, because I researched everywhere, and it had never happened in sports before.
So we rekindled our friendship, and when I was back east for our 20th high school reunion, I said, “Hey man, I want to make a documentary about the Sons of Ben.” He didn’t believe me at first, but in March 2012 I flew out there with my crew and we started shooting the film.
This is your first full-length film. What made you want to go all in on this story?
I just had to tell it because it’s happened that teams have moved to a new city, but never had I heard of this. I had to tell the story because you have to be crazy as a fan base to start something that’s not even tangible — there’s nothing there. These guys put everything they had into it.
When you started this whole project, what could you see, as an outsider, that made them so passionate about it?
I think they had a chip on their shoulder. MLS was around for 10 years and after all the rumors in the area, they just kept getting shot down. They were like, “Screw this, Philly is one of the top four markets in the country, we’re a great sports town, and we deserve a team. We need to start showing people.”
Growing up in Philadelphia you do have this chip on your shoulder where you’re in between New York and D.C., and you can feel overlooked. As a sports fan, championships are hard to come by, and you feel defeated a lot of the time. I related to that, because it’s also where I’m from.
How did you earn their trust to get so much access with the supporters’ group?
I definitely encountered some skepticism and reluctance, but I think Bryan James opened the door. He was the first president of the Sons of Ben, and he told everyone, “This is someone I trust, who I’ve known since the age of 12, and I think he’s really going to do justice to our story.”
Courtesy of Gravitas
As you were going through the process, how did the narrative change from what you initially thought it might be?
I thought it was just going to be this crazy, kind of comedic story. But I realized how much heart there was in it, and I realized how it was about how we can become something much bigger than ourselves.
It opened up a whole new avenue for me when I just started looking into Chester [the town outside of Philadelphia that’s the home of Talen Energy Park].
How do you think the Sons of Ben helped to shift the Philadelphia sports media’s view of soccer there?
I think it’s still a work in progress. I still see articles about “the four major sports in Philly,” and you see people in the comments section having to say, “You mean five,” because the Union are having a successful season and again are getting overlooked. So I think they still have their work cut out for them, but they’re making a lot of headway this year, especially since the Union are so successful.
On to the actual production of the movie, and the eventual release to DVD and digital — how did you get people to believe in this as your first full-length project?
It’s been a long, uphill battle. We’ve tried to convince a ton of people, and only a small percentage believed in it. We’ve become resourceful in ways of getting it done, because there were times when I was like, “I don’t know how we’re going to get this done. We don’t have the money, or anything to help support us.”
This is going to sound corny, cliché, whatever, but the Sons of Ben inspired us to keep pushing forward, considering what they had to go through in their journey.
We had some small investors and two relatively successful Indiegogo campaigns. However, it’s been coming out of our pockets; our families have helped us out; we’ve pulled a lot of favors from crew members.
But it just amazes us – I get chills telling you right now – it’s amazing how my crew members believed so much in this project that they were going to help us get it done no matter what. That’s really how we got through it all.
Last year the film was playing the festival circuit, and it’s just now getting a digital and VOD release. What’s been going on over the past year?
It was in festivals around the world starting in January 2015 and then we finally got our hometown premiere in Philly, which was amazing. We released the DVD in limited capacity this past September, so since then it’s been about trying to get on all the distribution platforms.
During my whole journey of making this, people would tell me that making a film is difficult, but it’s as difficult, or more difficult, to get it distributed. My producing partner and I have just been working our tails off trying to get that distribution partner, and luckily for us, Gravitas decided to pick us up. We’re just super excited for this digital release.