In the heart of the Cameroon jungle a football team bears the name of the animal they seek to save. They are the Silverbacks.
Building on what has come before
For filmmaker James Baines, the story of Silverbacks FC was a collective effort.
Manchester City; before and after the financial takeover.
CDM, like a Fernandinho or Claude Makelele, but I’ve tried most positions...
Favourite football moment
Kevin De Bruyne’s goal in the second leg of the Champions League against Paris Saint Germain. I was there, and we all went nuts. For me, it felt like a game that cemented us amongst Europe’s elite.
Oh and when I was really young, we were playing at a football tournament. I’m left footed but I crossed the ball with my right foot to the shortest player on the pitch who scored a header. It was the semi-final, and just added insult to injury for the opposition.
It’s midnight in Cameroon when James finally touches down from London. He’s tired and dazed from the flight. The air is significantly more humid.
He stops at border control, documents in hand.
“Where’s your yellow fever certificate?”
Getting the yellow fever shot was part of the visa application process prior to travelling to Cameroon. But they wanted the paper element to prove this. James did not have it.
“So the first thing I did in Cameroon was get escorted into this small room to receive another yellow fever jab.
“Are you meant to have the same two vaccinations in such a short amount of time?”
We couldn’t answer that.
What we can tell you is that James was in Cameroon to film Silverbacks FC, a short documentary about a group of workers from Ape Action Africa (AAA) who formed a football team together.
The name pays homage to the animals the team look after. These are animals that have been poached or stolen from their natural habitats who are then rescued. They arrive at the AAA sanctuary - Mefou Primate Park - to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
“PARK had shared a photo. It wasn’t your usual wanderlust photo on Instagram. It was a simple photo that just highlighted football in Africa and the story of the Silverbacks. It spoke so much to what I do as creative - I love visiting communities around the world and PARK was supporting them through these balls.
“It struck me as an amazing story that I should follow.”
James has spent years creating films around football. He believes that the subject is not so much the sport itself, but rather, the people that partake in it.
“I’m someone that strives to find the stories that are small and quiet, but have the emotional crescendos that make you feel connected to the person.”
“Football is one of those unique sports that brings people together that might not necessarily be brought together. Like music that is used in film to evoke emotion, football has the ability to convey emotion too.”
In pursuit of finding out more about the team, James finally got in touch with Alex Benitez - Manager of AAA.
“It was around Christmas time when we connected and Alex told me that they had a match with the military in a couple days and asked me to come and film. But there was no way I could just go to Cameroon at the drop of a hat.”
Alex’s eager interest and receptiveness did give James even more reason to pursue the story. So he spent the next 6 months saving before embarking onward.
“I’ve done a lot of travel before but nothing really prepares you for Cameroon.”
With only four days to film in Cameroon, James had to embed himself into life at Mefou Primate Park amidst some pretty tough conditions. There was a language barrier because the primary language of Cameroon is French. The environment was also unpredictable.
“The surroundings were quite harsh with extreme weather patterns. You’re sleeping in a mosquito net and at 3am you’re listening to chimps going crazy.”
However, James embraced it as his new normal and began to immerse himself with the surrounding community.
“Though most of our communication was non-verbal, I was still able to engage with the locals.
“After breakfast I would go film the gorillas, the workers would feed the apes and clean the cages. I would just hang around and interact with them. Once they were comfortable I was able to film.”
“They eventually got used to this kid lugging his camera and tripod around and could see I was willing to put the work in to capture their story.”
James likens his process to street photography; where permission is just as important as the act of photo-taking itself.
“I will not film someone without expressly speaking first. Especially in a place like Cameroon or Africa, where white filmmakers often come in and just point the camera wherever they see fit.”
Developing that trust was important, and James acknowledges there were a number of people that have come before who made his job easier.
“I really benefited from everyone elses work - Ian (a long time volunteer who took photos for PARK), Alex Benitez and Rachel Hogan (Park Managers); they have created and garnered trust in that community through AAA’s work. So much so that someone like me can come in and everyone is comfortable knowing I’m not going to tell their story in a different way.
“It still took time, and some people were a little bit shy - and I respected that. That being said, as soon as we got to the football match, the same people wanted to be on camera, to be seen and to show and express themselves.”
The football match between Silverbacks FC and another local team kicked off on James’ last day. In the searing Cameroonian heat, the Silverbacks would - SPOILER ALERT - emerge winners on the day, two goals to one.
“The match felt like a seminal event, like a little carnival. It was played on this pitch in one of the villages. Locals come from their homes and there’s a little bar across the road where people can watch the game from. From the sidelines there was a lot of emotion, shouting and encouragement.
“It wasn’t like those Mastercard ads where everyone is singing and dancing.
“It was more how amateur football really is - full of passion.”
As you watch Silverbacks FC, you realise that football is the part of the day where you’re allowed to be yourself and express yourself, regardless of where you are.
“They do back breaking work - waking up every morning at the crack of dawn, cleaning cages, filling wheelbarrows full of food, taking them to the apes and feeding them. They are extremely dangerous and intelligent animals, so you have to have your wits about you as you’re doing all this manual labour in 40 degree heat and humidity.
“It's the same reason they ride motorbikes, sing around campfires, or have a drink and dance at the end of the day; what they do is hard work and any form of release you can get from that is so valuable.”
For James, his films - like that of Silverbacks FC - are a gift to the communities that have welcomed him in. He likens it to PARK’S pass-a-ball initiative.
“Passing those balls into these communities creates such an emotive response. The association of giving back, giving them something unique, something that is wholly their own, something that they can express themselves with is immensely powerful.
“The reason I make films is to platform these voices, to give them their story and show them what it looks like.”
And for some, merely a glimpse is enough to realise the potential they truly hold.
Thanks to Ape Action Africa, Chris Whiteside, Ashley Kitchin, Liam Sharpe, Dale Curtis, Clint Trofa, Sir Winz, Ian Bickerstaff, PARK and everyone else who gave up their time to help me make this film.