Shark Fin Hoops Interview: Esteban Arguello

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 ‘Jiaolian’ is a documentary that’s been floating around for a few months now, and covers the highs and lows of a season in Chinese basketball. Focusing on the Foshan Long Lions and their coach at the time, Norman de Silva, Jiaolian looks set to be a wide-ranging film that looks at the CBA from a number of angles. Sitting down for an indepth interview is Esteban Arguello, the documentary’s director and the man who spent a season with one of the CBA’s youngest and most unpredictable teams.

Andrew Crawford: Before we talk about the film, I think its best to start by asking for a bit of into about yourself. How did you get into film making and what lead you to China?

Esteban Arguello:  I moved to the US from Argentina when I was a small child and I’ve always had a love for photography and storytelling. I suppose I fell into filmmaking because I thought that I had a unique vantage point as an immigrant. When I chose stories to document, I approach them with an outsider’s perspective and with the hopes of experiencing a new culture and understanding it. As for China, I moved to Beijing in 2011 because my wife had found a great job in her native country and really wanted me to experience China.

AC: Without giving away details of the documentary itself, what do you think an audience is going to learn from the movie?

EA: I think the first thing westerners are going to learn is just how popular basketball is in China. When I first arrived I was shocked to see basketball courts in everywhere. Not only is it popular but it’s also been in China for over a hundred years. Secondly, for anyone curious about the CBA and what makes the league tick, I think this film will give an interesting inside view of the players, coaches, and teams.

AC: How did you come to end up at Foshan?

EP: I got to Foshan through Steve Zhao at Hupu.com. He had been talking to several teams, trying to get them more exposure, and he helped me pitch the idea of a behind-the-scenes doc to a few CBA teams. I’m just speculating, but I think because Foshan is a relatively new team, only three years old [they were moved up to the CBA from the NBL in 2010], they really wanted some exposure to help recruit western players and were therefore willing to take a chance on letting me in.

AC: Tell me about your relationship with Norman de Silva. In the trailer, he comes across as a guy whose finds himself dropped into the middle of a chaotic situation that will make or break his reputation.

EP: In my conversations with the Foshan’s media rep, I asked that they notify the team that I would be coming and when I arrived I asked that they possibly allow me to say a few words to the team as a whole during a video session, but I quickly realized neither of those things were going to happened; they just pointed me to the arena and said good luck. So I walked in on a practice and just started filming. I was shocked to see that the guy running it was a really young and average height guy with a Boston accent, not the coach that we had seen in previous games. So I introduce myself as a fellow Bostonian and we hit it off from the beginning.

AC: Just like that, huh?

EA: Well, Foshan were midway through their season; I think I was a refreshing newcomer that spoke English so the Americans were happy to talk to me. Then I got the full story that Foshan’s original coach had returned to the US for personal reasons and the team had ditched their star player, Rashad McCant– which was troubling.  But since Norman had taken over the team, Foshan was winning so we then knew the bigger story here wasn’t necessarily the foreign imports but the new young coach that everyone was talking about.

AC: Was it hard to watch a young coach go through that situation?

EA: Perhaps it was. I think as a documentary filmmaker you can’t help but really grow attached to your subjects and I quickly became Foshan’s #1 fan. I remember the second game we filmed against Fujian, the score was tied with a minute left and my legs were shaking so much from the tension that I couldn’t hold the camera steady. I wasn’t expecting to become that sensitive to the material but the competition really drags you in. As the season got tougher for Foshan, Norman had to deal with a lot of pulling and tugging from management and various people who wanted to give their input. I think one of the reasons he really opened up to us was that we were one of the few people he knew in China that weren’t connected to the team so he could blow off some steam in the interviews. I really appreciated his honesty with us, so yeah I really became invested in his success.

AC: Did you know that coaching change was going to go down before you began making the documentary?

EA: I didn’t. Same with Rashad McCants. Perhaps the team knew but they didn’t share it with me. I found out from the players when I arrived.

AC: What was it like being inside a CBA organizations during a pretty bizarre season?

EA: I had read Jim Yardley’s book [Brave Dragons– a must read for Chinese basketball fans] and I thought I was going to see a lot of the same kind of stuff, but instead what I saw was a young coach trying his hardest to win, and really struggling to communicate and motivate his players. I suppose in America, the motivation for playing is easy; there is money at the end of the line, but in China the players are playing for other reasons which are not as obvious.

As for the “bizarreness” of the CBA; sure, like most developing industries in China, people were very quick to point out the successes of the team while asking me politely not to mention or to please ignore other aspects of the league and the game. I was also politely asked to “not make trouble” which was impressive only because of how afraid people were. While I assured people I met that I set out to make a positive doc about cultures being bridged through the game of basketball I could not ignore the really glaring things such as an opposing team’s owner’s wife tugging on a ref’s shirt during time out; or why when all the Chinese players went through security at the airport, they all had cigarette lighters. I tried to understand the Chinese logic to the game while also asking the right questions. I hope that comes through.

AC: Besides Coach de Silva, you also deal with the western players who come to the CBA. Hardcore NBA fans will probably recognize Shavlik Randolph from the trailer, but talk about the issues that Americans face when they come to play in China.

EA: The first things most import players encounter is the language barrier obviously. Foshan was pretty generous to its foreign players in terms of comfort-of-living, which can be a big difference if you’re playing in a ‘tier one’ city as opposed to a more remote destination. But in Foshan, the import players stay in the best western hotel in town where they can order western foods through room service and the hotel staff speaks English. They also had a translator, a driver and a handler on call. So that made it the day-to-day management of living in China a little easier.

AC: But when they have to deal with their local teammates, that’s when things get interesting.

EA: Exactly. Communicating with Chinese players can be challenging and there is definitely a divide both culturally and economically in addition to language. The Chinese players stay in dorms and are treated like military unit while the foreigners essentially have independent lives. They also have vastly different income levels and the Chinese players are often under curfew so it’s also not easy to “hang out” with the local players as much.

AC: In my own experiences covering the CBA, I often find the bulk of the league’s Chinese players get ignored. Your documentary will give people a different take on this and look at the local roster as well as the foreign guys. What is life like for an everyday Chinese player?

EA: Chinese players in China do live a more managed and regimented lifestyle than their American counterparts. For the most part the players live in dorms and they have a Chinese team manager that is in charge of making sure the guys get up, go to breakfast, go to morning shoot-around eat lunch, get their nap in, go to afternoon practice, and on non-game days after dinner, the guys might have some free time which most guys spend on the internet or playing video games. Curfew is usually around 10pm. The Foshan player dorms are 45 minutes outside of the city in a resort by a lake, so the players have a few mopeds that they can take to a local store to get some DVDs if they want. The Foshan team is a really young team, they’re all bachelors, so they definitely had a “college” feel to it. I think the hard part of it, is that basketball is a 24/7 job there. The CBA season is only three months long, but after the CBA season, they might go onto the national team or play local exhibitions matches or just training with the team. The nicer teams give a week off for Chinese New Year and a week or two off during the off-season, but some cut the vacation shorter. And most of the players have been living this lifestyle since they were teenagers in the Sport Academies, so for some it can be rather draining spiritually. Salaries are rumored to be around 300k RMB for a starting player so it’s a good job for most if the number is true but not enough to really push them to treat the sport as more than a job. If the national team isn’t on in the cards for the player then there is little incentive for him to really push himself. But winning cures all, and if they have something to play for, then the love of the game really comes through.

Visit the ‘Jiaolian’ website for more information on the project. You can also like the documentary on facebook by clicking this link. Follow Jiaolian on twitter and also Esteban on his own account.

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