He’s one of the biggest, best-known football stars in the world; he’s also famously very guarded with the media, often cutting short his interviews and never going into much personal detail. So how did two indie filmmakers on a small budget manage to get some of the most intimate conversations ever recorded with Zlatan Ibrahimović?
Fredrik and Magnus Gertten with the young Zlatan Ibrahimović
“You need luck as a documentary filmmaker!” Magnus Gertten, co-director of the new film Becoming Zlatan, tells me. He and his brother Fredrik certainly had that. In 1999, the Gerttens, who have both had success as individual filmmakers, decided to make a second documentary following their football team, Malmö FC, through relegation – the first, True Blue, had followed fans of the club in 1997. “There are many projects we have worked on separately, but this one we knew we had to share,” says Fredrik, with a grin – both brothers have been lifelong fans of the club, so to suddenly gain access to the players, and be allowed behind the scenes at training sessions, was a dream come true for them.
“We were there for every game, often for training as well, shooting hours and hours of material,” says Magnus. “And in the middle of this a new young player shows up in the dressing room as a part of the squad. He was different: coming from an immigrant family, cocky attitude, individualistic playing style, charisma. He had everything you're looking for in a protagonist in a documentary, so we took a chance – thought we’d follow him and see what would happen. We couldn’t know that he would become Sweden's most famous person and one of the top players in international football!”
“We were always around”
That young player, of course, was Zlatan, and the Gerttens ended up conducting his first-ever interviews, many of which form the spine of Becoming Zlatan: candid conversations in the dressing room, hanging out with his brother and his girlfriend as he plays computer games, with him as he travels to Amsterdam to sign for Ajax. It’s the sort of access it’s impossible to imagine the famously anti-media star giving anyone now.
“Zlatan has always protected his private life, but we got accepted just because we were there from the very start. We were always around. We almost became a part of the daily routines in the club, and we followed him closely for two years.”
Zlatan at seventeen, as seen in Becoming Zlatan
For years, most of this footage has been sitting in a basement – True Blue 2 was released in 2002, and, as Fredrik explains, although Zlatan became the breakout star, the brothers felt they had a responsibility to follow other players, management and the supporters as well. They also had concerns about some of the content their young subject had provided them with.
“We thought, this stuff with his father, we didn’t want to use that at the time,” says Fredrik, talking about what now seems disarming honesty from the young Zlatan about his relationship with his alcoholic, demanding father, given how guarded he grew up to be. “But then he published his autobiography [in 2011], where he talks about all that stuff quite openly, and we felt that maybe the time was right.”
“A very universal story”
“A couple of years ago we realised that Zlatan's career would be coming to an end soon,” says Magnus. “So we decided to take a look at the old material, to see if there was enough for us to create a feature doc on Zlatan. It was like digging in a goldmine; the more we dug, the more golden moments we found.”
But how do you create a gripping story around an individual when everyone knows he went on to worldwide fame? The Gerttens realised that what they had, inadvertently, was a classic coming-of-age narrative. “This was a story about the defining years of Zlatan,” says Magnus. “The years when everything was at stake – 1999 to 2005, through the Malmö years, his years at Ajax in Amsterdam, and finally arriving to Juventus in Italy, where he had his final breakthrough - and that's when we leave him. We were never interested in doing a lifetime story.”
“What’s interesting is that this story – it seems to have touched people who have no interest in football,” says Fredrik. “I had an old lady at a screening come up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes. ‘That poor boy,’ she said. What we have found is a very universal story.”
On the big screen in Italy and Greece
Becoming Zlatan will be in cinemas in Greece from Saturday 12 November and Italy from Monday 14 November.