Know Your Referee

in 13rd Black Nights Film Festival

by Viktor Palák

Even though Estonia doesn’t belong to the football superpowers, the response of a numerous audience affirmed the sport’s exclusive and global status. The screenings of Yves Hinant’s documentary Kill the Referee (Les Arbitres) belonged to the highlights of the Black Nights Film Festival’s eclectic program and were moreover boosted by personal presence of Howard Webb, one of Britain’s top football referees and of course one of the film’s protagonists.

Having premiered in Locarno, Kill the Referee is another football-related film that has finally and deservedly made it to the festival circuit. Not covering famous mistakes fans would “kill for” (as some expected), but focusing on the life of several referees during the European Football Cup in 2008, the documentary is both illuminating and entertaining. Though fans of the respective national teams will recognize particulars games, the film is not about the results but about those four men on and near the pitch “everybody loves to hate”. And there are plenty of them in the film: not only Webb, whose correct penalty decision led to an outrage of Polish fans as well as officials, but briefly also Tom Henning Øvrebø who was to experience his “fifteen minutes of hate” one year later after letting Barcelona slip to the Champions League finals at the expense of Chelsea.

While during an actual football game it is desirable to see as little referee interference as possible, here it works the other way round. The viewer gets to examine various situations in great detail and by using the actual tapping of the referees’ headphone systems the film manages not only to further emphasize the human element involved, but also underlines the enormous pace the games are played at and the short time and pressure under which decisions have to be made. While possibly making the audience feel at a loss at some of these situations, Kill the Referee further enhances its “humanizing” mission, which is made successful also by presenting the “backstage” rituals, protagonists’ self-awareness and also their family members. Being granted dramatic tension by reactions to Webb’s last-minute penalty, the movie also gets a tight storyline – one that is even more interesting than the referees’ natural and competitive desire to be the ones to take part in the upcoming finals.

Even though the film was initiated and backed by UEFA, which openly wanted to “humanize” football referees, the documentary doesn’t advocate the Association’s interests and openly communicates with the audiences. The closer to football they are, the more they can live out the respective situations and thus also the whole film. While keeping its distance, Kill the Referee expresses its respect for a difficult profession and also gives the protagonists their deserved moment in the limelight.

It is quite normal to see football uniting people. But this is the first time referees manage to do the same without having to be afraid of the united, but angry fans. And while a bit of “referee hate” is as symptomatic for going to a football game as buying a pint of beer while there, Kill the Referee does make a difference in how we look at whistleblowers.

Edited by Steven Yates