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In conversation with Marcel Gisler, director and co-writer of LGBT football film Mario

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“When we started writing the film, we heard about other features, where people were trying to do similar LGBT projects. We didn’t hear about these projects again. Mario seems to be the only one.”

Though the LGBTQ community has recently enjoyed an encouraging trend in films addressing the struggles and inequalities faced by those identifying as something other than heterosexual, these films have still been somewhat limited to teenage audiences - think Love, Simon (2018) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018) to name a couple. 

Aaron Altaras (Leon), director Marcel Gisler, and Max Hubacher (Mario) - Courtesy of Sky Sports

Sadly, as Marcel Gisler, director and co-writer of Mario, discovered, these few examples, are far from representative of our culture as a whole: 

“When Thomas (Hess) first came to me with the idea for Mario in 2010, my first reaction was that the topic is too obvious - there must already be a film of this kind. But after a little research, we found that there has never been a feature film about a gay love story in professional football, so we thought it was time to highlight the topic.”

But Marcel soon found that this topic was not so much unrealised, as it was brushed aside by the higher powers of film finance and distribution: 

“I was surprised, yes. But we soon realised that it has to do with the financing of such projects. We had a lot of negative feedback from distributors, telling us that films with gay issues don’t sell very well. Combined with the fact that it’s very difficult to depict football in a good way in a feature film, we had two things against us. They thought it was too difficult to do and advised us against the project.” 

Naturally, this didn’t fill Marcel with much hope when approaching football clubs themselves. If the film industry was not yet open minded enough to welcome the concept of gay football players, what would they face when pitching to clubs for backing and much needed filming space? Luckily, Marcel and his team struck gold with Swiss club, Bern: 

“We’d been thinking we’d have to create a fictitious club, because we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere who were not afraid of the topic. But right from first meeting Bern surprised us - they were very open minded and gave us their support immediately. They let me look behind the curtain of the footballing business, so I could really have a look at every detail - not only the administrative side but also the training, how it all works. We did look into the club first, of course. We asked some people we knew in the media, and they gave us some advice on which clubs we could ask, and which never would support us.”

Marcel’s solemnity about this struggle was enough to communicate the silence surrounding the issue in football. Asking about the research Marcel undertook, revealed more: “I met a lot of people: managers, players and coaches etc. But I also got to talk to former young professional player, Marcus Urban, who stopped his career at 22 to come out - [he] just couldn’t handle the depression any longer.

"It was a very important discussion for me. He taught me about the pressure that weighs on every professional player - heterosexual or gay - the pressure of performance is enormous. But then, on top of that, as a gay player, having to deal with the burden of the constant self-denial. It was this that gave me the idea to create two different characters who suffer from the same conflict, and handle it different ways.” 

I asked, out of curiosity, which his characters, Mario (Max Hubacher) or Leon (Aaron Altaras), Marcel thinks is stronger? 

“I think they are both strong in a certain, but different way. Leon is morally strong, while Mario is strong in his self-denial and in withstanding enormous pressure. Mario is not so strong mentally or morally, but I understand it because to make the decision to renounce his career is also a question of identity for someone like Mario, who has focused his whole life on this one goal. But Leon seems to have deeper needs besides sport, so maybe it’s not so much of a choice for him. Leon does what he needs to do, and Mario does what he needs.” 

Asking about the ending (SPOILER ALERT), I wondered if Marcel had always known he was going to end the film in this way, and was impressed by the brutal honesty behind his decision, that so many of today’s YA representations lack:

“Yes, it was always clear. I wanted to end it in today’s reality, not in a fairytale. Today people still feel that they have to hide. That pressure and that fear is still real. It was only right to end the way I did.”

Despite all the challenges Marcel faced in the making of Mario, his belief in the project and his vision for its place within the LGBTQ discussion remain strong:

“I’m always nervous about how my films will be received. But I wasn’t especially nervous because of the topic. My wish and my hope is that the film can reach a broader audience than just the gay community. I hope that if the film can really affect something, it could become a little of the puzzle to maintain the discussion.”

Mario will be released on DVD and Digital on Monday 10th September. 

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