Beyond the Seen – Eye on the Ball

Ezzah Mahmud takes in the director’s cut of Yihwen Chen’s documentary about Malaysia’s blind national footballers.

It is so easy for us to forget how a disabled professional athlete would live their life day by day, without being able to see, let alone feel that experience. We can never truly know how and what it would be like. We can only assume and imagine the best we can. ‘Eye on the Ball’ is one documentary that shines a light on that, giving us a glimpse of that life.

An inspiring documentary produced, directed and written by Yihwen Chen, it is about the Malaysian Paralympic football team. It focuses on the lead up to the 2017 ASEAN Paralympic Games, as well as the qualifying for the World Cup. We follow a number of hardworking characters, such as Asri Arshad, Azwan Kenchot Azhar and Rollen Marakim. They are led by their superbly committed and passionate coach, Sunny Shalesh.

In many respects, it is a simple story about how one strives to achieve their goal in becoming a professional football player. In other ways, it is layered with complex emotions and heartfelt circumstances. The film begins with a very tight and uncomfortable shot of Asri’s eyes, as he is being checked by an ophthalmologist. This establishes the very issue to be raised in the documentary, as all of the athletes have some degree of blindness, either semi or full.

This also invites the audience, subconsciously or otherwise, to be empathetic and understanding of their struggles. Additionally, working with it also gives rise to the feeling of empowerment and admiration, seeing how these athletes push to the limits to play for Malaysia. As mentioned at the start of this review, that comes from the audience seeing the process, of what a day in the life of blind football players are like.

I find it amusing, in a way, as it connects and reminds me that these athletes are just like us; though visually-impaired, they can do pretty much everything. In particular, they are really good at football! At the same time, you are reminded of the lack of support from society. For instance, there is a moment in the film when this becomes apparent. With the athletes in their hotel room, Asri accidentally knocks down a ceramic vase: “Thank god you’re not broken, I don’t have money to replace you”.

Through this perspective, I really enjoy the fun little conversations the characters have with each other. Another example of this is when Asri speak of how they need to know of the toilet’s location in a new place, so that they can quickly get there when nature calls. This is something most people might not think about, so in that sense, ‘Eye on the Ball’ provides plenty that the audience can learn about.

It is also uplifting to see and learn how they practise and train. When Coach Sunny talks about a kick, all the players gather closely and cling to him, holding this feet, holding that ball, trying to understand what he is saying. The coach’s assistant will hit the goal post, making a noise, to let the athlete know where it is. This is just another example of how the audience will see more and more of the complex issues surround the subject matter. The potential for injury is never far away, and when it happens, their expectations and realities collide, challenging them in trying to reach for their goals.

Yihwen also brings us to better know their personal background beyond the football pitch. We see how Asri is a mama’s boy, and how Kenchot felt pressure as the eldest son. How Rollen’s mother tell the story on how many times he almost burned the house down, after knocking down the kerosene lamp at home because growing up; they do not have electricity at his home in Kudat at the time, so they relied on kerosene lamps.

The same applies to Coach Sunny, allowing us to better understand what (and who) drives Coach Sunny to train them. These moments express a bigger intertwining challenge and motivation surrounding the overarching story of blindness and football. I also appreciate the follow-through story, looking at the athletes and coach after the big games. Win or lose, it hammers home the importance of this journey.

‘Eye on the Ball’ is a very well made film, story-wise and cinematically. I see Malaysia, and how pretty it is during the day and night. I see these athletes and how they are independent in their own ways. I see friendship and family values strongly upheld. I was filled with emotions, from start to finish. I personally did not prepare myself for some misty eyes bits, but the film has successfully brought me in close, and I really rooted for their success.

The audience will see unfiltered emotions, raw and sincere. They will see the effort, sweat and tears (literally, at times). Kudos to the sound design of the film, as well. Edited by Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, it feels balanced, supporting the visual accordingly, and at times, played my heartstrings exceptionally.

To summarise, this is an honest and inspiring film about Malaysia’s blind athletes. It puts forward how dedicated and committed they are in making their country proud. On a personal level, it is also a nudge, motivating me towards a more active lifestyle; I can’t help but think that if they can do it, so can I. Yihwen’s work has affected me strongly, and these players deserve our love and support. It has won my heart, and it should be seen by everyone!

We previously wrote about the films of Yihwen Chen.

This review is based on the director’s cut of the film. The current television version is altered by the rights owner at the request of the film’s subjects, without consultation from the director or editor. 

Featured image credit: Eye on the Ball/Facebook

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