- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2008

That old filmanthropist, Ted Leonsis, is at it again. Following last year’s release of the critically acclaimed “Nanking,” which portrayed the brutality of war on civilians, the Washington Capitals owner and movie producer set his sights on the issue of homelessness.

The result is his new film, “Kicking It,” which examines the subject - with a twist. As the double-entendre title hints, it’s also about soccer, an apparently odd coupling. But the documentary, which drew rave reviews at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals and at its New York premiere earlier this month, explains how such disparate entities have merged to create an agent of personal and societal change.

“It’s a concept that a ball can change your life,” said Leonsis, who coined the word “filmanthropy” to describe the raising of awareness (and money) through film to address social issues and causes. “I became so enthralled with the [homeless soccer] charity and the concept that sports and teamwork can give people a higher purpose in life. About 75 percent of them end up getting off the streets, back to school, jobs, off drugs and alcohol.”

“Kicking It” opens in the District (and Los Angeles) on Friday, coinciding with the start of the Homeless World Cup trials that run through Sunday at Kastles Stadium, the new World TeamTennis facility located downtown on the site of the former convention center.

That’s right, the Homeless World Cup. Even the manager of the U.S. team, Lawrence Cann, calls it “kind of a wild thing.” At the trials, known as the Homeless USA Cup and underwritten by Leonsis’ charity foundation, Cann will help select the 15-man American squad, which includes alternates, from approximately 80 participants representing 11 cities. At stake is a trip to the 2008 Homeless World Cup in Melbourne, Australia, in December.

“We want to get people off the street and into mainstream society,” said Cann, who directs a nonprofit outreach agency in Charlotte, N.C., and who started Street Soccer USA, the host of the Homeless USA Cup. “Everyone wants to do three things: get off the street, get a job and reconnect with their families.”

The Homeless World Cup has been held since 2003, bringing together soccer teams composed of homeless people from nearly 50 countries. What they play is not the typical game but street soccer - four-man teams on a reduced field or pitch playing seven-minute halves.

The competition can’t be found on ESPN, at least not yet. But the cable network will air “Kicking It” in September. Directed by local independent filmmaker Susan Koch, the movie focuses on the 2006 Homeless World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa, and what it took for those from different parts of the world to get there.

“It’s a great story of underdogs,” Leonsis said. “You root for them, get to know them. … By the end of the film, you’re cheering for them like they were professional athletes. The idea is simple. You take homeless people who are intrinsically self-conscious and who focus on the day-to-day goals of where do they sleep, where do they eat and get them involved in a team-oriented endeavor and see if that can help them get more adapted to life.”

Koch, who lives in Cabin John, started shooting “Kicking It” on her own as a “leap of faith,” she said. She had one investor, but then she met Leonsis and showed him an eight-minute trailer.

“It was a good fit,” she said. “Ted came on board as the main producer. He’s involved with the funding, marketing, distribution and he would screen the cuts. He’s been involved in everything. He has great instincts.”

Leonsis even got actor Colin Farrell to appear on camera and narrate the beginning and end of the film.

Koch and her crew visited several locales worldwide, researching homeless communities and finding suitable individuals whose stories she could tell. Among many notable personalities, we meet Damien, a heroin addict from Dublin; Najib, a victim of oppression by the Taliban in Afghanistan; Jesus, a 62-year-old alcoholic in Madrid; and Craig, a child-abuse victim shuffled among countless group homes until he was dumped on the streets of Charlotte at 18 with significant anger issues.

Yet each ended up in Cape Town, wearing a brightly colored uniform, wrapping himself in his country’s flag and competing. Soccer provided not just a respite but a source of salvation and dignity.

“I think one of the most interesting things that came out of this was that I really saw how sports could transform lives,” Koch said.

Cann appears in “Kicking It” as coach of the U.S. team. Now his brother, Rob, has the job while Lawrence handles more an administrative and managerial duties.

A former soccer player at Davidson, Cann taught English in Japan before he returned to the United States and worked at a homeless center teaching art. He saw the positive effects, the teamwork and sense of accomplishment that resulted from turning vacant lots into community gardens and piles of trash into a 40-foot sculpture. Given his soccer background, the next step was clear.

“To most people, the Homeless World Cup sounds kind of weird,” he said. “But it’s exactly what these guys need.”

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