Football is more than a game for many people in Salt Lake City’s tight-knit Polynesian American neighborhoods.
People of Samoan and Tongan descent are 28 times more likely than any other minority group to play for the National Football League, and the Wasatch Front is considered to be the “Polynesian Pipeline” to professional teams across the country.
The new documentary “In Football We Trust,” which will be screening for free at Star Hall on Thursday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m., explains how the sport has come to represent the hopes and dreams of an entire community.
First-time filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn maintain that football offers the promise of moving beyond a world that is often plagued by gang violence and near-poverty.
The duo follow the lives of four Polynesian high school football players and their families as they work toward their longtime goals of joining college teams, with the ultimate hope that they will play for the NFL one day.
Vainuku – a first generation Tongan-American and Salt Lake City native – says that other kids in his neighborhood looked up to gang members and “popular” drug dealers. But he and his peers on the Little League team found their role models in the likes of NFL pioneers Junior Seau and Vai Sikahema, who made the American Dream seem attainable to them.
His uncle Joe also stood out to them as an all-state high school linebacker and a top college recruit, but that success story turned tragic when that career ended and his uncle wound up in prison for 10 years.
Vainuku, who quit playing football during his sophomore year in high school to pursue interests in songwriting and entertainment, says his family’s last name was associated with gang affiliations, making it difficult to escape those stereotypes.
The filmmaker found that his experience is by no means unique. It is reflected in the stories of two “In Football We Trust” players – brothers whose reputations were soured because of their father’s gang affiliations.
Likewise, Vainuku says that another player’s difficult upbringing mirrored his own humble childhood. He and Cohn examine how the boy’s family has struggled with poverty, and they highlight the importance of Christianity in many Polynesian homes – including his own.
“My personal experiences with loss and redemption have inspired me to pursue filmmaking,” Vainuku said in his director’s statement about the movie. “’In Football We Trust’ is the beginning of a lifelong career in sharing my perspective and understandings of the immigrant experience.”
The Utah Film Center is presenting the local screening of “In Football We Trust” in conjunction with the Grand County Public Library, and Utah Film Center Artistic Director Patrick Hubley said the documentary is a must-see movie.
“The local story of ‘In Football We Trust’ is sure to resonate with Utahns statewide,” he said. “Through incredible access, the film explores the extreme pressure on four young men in Utah’s Polynesian community to excel in the sport that could lead them to life-changing experiences – all while faced with the challenges created by gang violence, addiction and poverty.”
Grand County Public Library Head of Adult Services Meg Flynn called the documentary a worthy addition to the fall lineup of films at Star Hall.
‘In Football We Trust’ has drawn large crowds to all of its screenings and critics have noted that it is an engaging and powerful film,” she said. “We are looking forward to screening a film that depicts a modern immigrant story in our own home state.”
Documentary profiling aspiring Polynesian athletes comes to Star Hall
“Through incredible access, the film explores the extreme pressure on four young men in Utah’s Polynesian community to excel in the sport that could lead them to life-changing experiences – all while faced with the challenges created by gang violence, addiction and poverty.”
When: Thursday, Nov. 19, at 7 p.m.
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.
Star Hall is located at 159 E. Center St. For more information about upcoming Utah Film Center screenings at Star Hall, go to www.utahfilmcenter.org/events/category/moab/upcoming/.