Australian Rules Football is our national sport, yet it has long failed to engage with dismantling the gender inequality that exists within the community. While the existence of AFL Women’s league ameliorates some of the issues, but even that league is plagued by a lack of parity and increasing uncertainty for the players.
When the rules exclude you, rewrite them. So goes the tagline for Mitch Nivalis’ history defining, inclusive football documentary Equal the Contest, and it’s a mindset that the women and gender diverse players at the Mount Alexander Falcons have embraced as they tackle head-on the fight to play in the male-dominated sport. When Mitch, whose pronouns are they/them, starts playing with the Falcons, they discover an accepting organisation where introductions include pronouns, and the focus is less about winning and more about building a community.
Equal the Contest confidently defies the harsh gender divided playing field that existed when Mitch was younger, and by doing so, equally shines a light on the untold history of some of the earlier women footballers from the 1940s. While Equal the Contest is future focused, it’s in these moments where Mitch gets to talk to one of those players from decades ago, someone who felt immense shame for the mere act of playing football, that we see what is at stake: the hope and joy that comes with playing a team sport within a community that accepts you for who you are and holds no prejudices.
I talked to Mitch about what it means to capture that sense of community on screen, as well as the difficult task of putting oneself on camera.
Umbrella Entertainment has today announced the Australian digital release date for the powerful true story, EQUAL THE CONTEST. Directed by Mitch Nivalis, the gentle and personal agitprop film is set to arrive on all major digital platforms on March 6, 2024, just in time for International Women’s Day.
Equal the Contest follows the Mt Alexander Falcons football club, a new community level club created in 2021 by and for, women and gender diverse people. When 42-year-old, non-binary filmmaker, Mitch, joins the new local women’s footy club in Regional Victoria a simple desire to play becomes a complex journey of inclusion and belonging. An unexpected turn means the team must fight to play. Their campaign challenges age old sporting traditions and joins the wider movement for gender equity.
Along the way, Mitch discovers the 1948 Castlemaine Woollen Mill Women’s football team. It’s last surviving member, 93-year-old Mavis Thompson’s experiences playing football mirror the struggles of Mitch and The Falcons.
Winning the Best First Feature Documentary at Melbourne Queer Film Festival 2023, Equal the Contest is a case study for current day gender inequality, highlighting the challenges still faced by women and gender diverse people who simply want to play football.
Your work is very community focused and pulls communities together. What does it mean to bring a community get together for you?
Mitch Nivalis (they/them): Before this project, I felt like I was never the one bringing community together. I would be hired and someone else was doing that job, and it was my role to make sure that I wasn’t interrupting that process and that people felt safe in the documenting that we did. I felt like this was really the first time that I was playing an active role in saying “This is my idea. Can you come along with me and try to make sure I [get] across what I [am] trying to do?” In hindsight, that’s probably not the first time I’ve done that without being so conscious that I was doing it.
I think it was in 2021 [when] I worked on a project which was for survivors of sexual abuse. That was commissioned by the City of Ballarat, but it was my idea that I was [seeing through] and was bringing people together. That was really, really successful. So, I had this testing ground already for what it is to bring a very vulnerable community together and to try and navigate how lots of different people with different backgrounds move through that process.
So, when I got to the footy project, I didn’t realise how much experience I actually had. Immediately, I had lots of ideas in terms of how I wanted to engage the players and to try not make it feel like this was just me doing [it] and they were on the sidelines. I really wanted to try and get them as deep in the experience as [I was] because I was having a lot of revelations about what I was feeling being in that space, and I wanted to check that the players were also going on that journey. [Which meant] reflecting and getting deep into the project and what I was trying to do.
What I appreciated was the balance of telling their stories alongside your story, so we get an idea of what you’re going through, which must be similar to what the other players are going through. I’m curious for you what it means to turn the camera on yourself and to be vulnerable in front of a camera?
MN: That was horrible. In the beginning, I was never going to be in the film. The film was originally about the club, but because I had gone to the ‘come and try’ sessions, and I’d really enjoyed having a kick, I felt such a sense of belonging within the club immediately. I felt like I’ve never been so welcome and had never dropped my guard so much in a space [before].
Straight up, I had this conflict in terms of I wanted to document what the players and the club was experiencing, but I also didn’t want to on the sidelines doing that. That’s when I had the idea to attach cameras to my body so that I could do both easily. Someone said to me, “Who is the body in this film?” I said, “It doesn’t matter who the body is. We’re just seeing the players.” I [realised that] it’s really important to know who the body is.
That’s when I really started to think about my own experience as a kid playing football. I hadn’t played sport in over 20 years. I’d totally disengaged from sport; so to realise that I’d had all these quite negative experiences with sport as a kid, in terms of not being included simply because of my gender, and then to realise a very similar experience was happening at 42; there was a lot of unpacking to do within that. There was a lot of tears.
It was coupled with me feeling vulnerable about being visible as a gender diverse person, particularly in the current climate where there’s a lot of negativity around trans and gender diverse people in sport. I struggle with the idea of being visible anyway, I really like to be hidden, and I don’t like being the centre of attention. [So, it was] all of those things coming at me at once.
[This wasn’t initially] meant to be a feature film. At first, I thought it was just going to be some photos. [Then], when I was in the middle of creating this project, I thought ‘there’s a bigger story, maybe it’ll be a 10-minute film.’ I realised pretty quickly because the story was there, [that this] was a feature length film. And, never having done that before, I felt out of my depth a lot of the time.
I had no funding. I was a one-person show doing the video, audio, the treatment, [trying to] figure out how to do all of this and be visible and unpack childhood trauma. In hindsight, it was too much really. It really impacted on my mental health throughout the process. I had a lot of difficulties. The last 18 months has been probably one of the most challenging periods of my life, but also really cathartic. To do all of that in the space of this beautiful, nurturing, supportive club, and surrounded by people that I know loved me dearly… I couldn’t have been in a better space to do all of that work.
For me, there was a realisation that came with watching the film where, for many Australians, playing or watching footy is like speaking English or a second language, but there is a whole group of people who really want to play or have not had the ability to be part of the group. There’s a beautiful moment where the experienced players are supporting the younger players who don’t know the sport all that well and showing them how to play and work as a team. To witness those who have been excluded for far too long effectively say, “We’re going to push ourselves into this area and enjoy something that has been denied from us for so long.” It’s a powerful moment.
You’ve talked about how great it is to have teammates who are joining with you on that same journey, but I’m curious what it was like in those moments where you’re all supporting each other. We don’t really get to see that kind of support on screen often, and it’s powerful when we do.
MN: I’m glad you picked up on that, because we don’t get to see it often, and we don’t get to see it with older people, either. Usually, when people learn to play football, they are five to eight years old, so to have someone who’s 42 picking up the football and saying something as simple as “How do you handball?”, it really makes you realise that this sport isn’t actually like English to most people, or not to all people anyway. That was really interesting.
It’s still happening now because we have new players turn up to the club every week [who are] in the same situation, and so every week we’re explaining how to kick a ball, how to hand pass, where to put your hands on a ball, all [the aspects of footy] that seem so simple if you’ve been given access. I think that’s something that’s really difficult for a lot of people to understand. Guys can go “You don’t know how to kick,” and it’s like, “Well, of course, because no one’s ever taught me.”
That’s been really beautiful to create that space, but also when that’s the tone of the space that you’re in, people turn up and lead with their vulnerability in a way where they’re not embarrassed by it. At the start of this year, we had a big influx of new players, and one of them is a bigger woman who hasn’t ever felt like she could engage in sport. She came straight up to me at training and she said, “I’m here because I saw the trailer and you made me believe I could play football.” And I was just like, “Great! All right!” She’s been incredible to watch improve [and see] her confidence grow.
That’s been the case for people with bigger bodies who haven’t engaged in sport. It’s been a case for people who’ve never played sport in their life. I said to one of my teammates, “What has been your biggest fear in this whole thing?” She said, “It was the day I ran out onto the field for the first time, and I was terrified of having an audience.” She’s 40 and she had never played sport in her life. The concept of having people standing on the sidelines and watching her was terrifying. When she ran onto the field, she realised that you don’t hear anything once you’re [there], because you’re surrounded by your teammates. It’s just your team. That was really powerful.
There’s been loads and loads of those experiences across skills, across mental health, across body shape, body size, gender identity. One of our trans players last year talked about how they are really a shy person. They’re in the process of transitioning, so coming down to training every week, and [were] being encouraged to use their voice, and in doing that, [and] hearing their voice getting deeper and deeper, that was a really powerful thing for them. When that space has been created, we all get to explore our own experiences, and talk about them with each other, and just be accepted in that way.
There’s a line in the film which says that there is no talk about winning, instead talk about culture. That, in its own way, is a way of talking about the core goal of football which is to win the match. But you don’t focus on that, because if you focus on that, you’ll lose sight of everything. Whereas, talking about culture and supporting each other creates a winning environment. Not to get reductive, but what’s it like to be in that kind of environment, and to play a great game and win a match?
MN: It’s so joyous. As a kid, I did end up going on to play soccer. I played fairly high level; it was super competitive. It really was about winning. You would win a game and you would come off and just focus on all the shit you did wrong, so no matter what the score was, and how well you won, you would generally just be feeling a bit shit about yourself.
We go on to a field with such joy, for the simple act of kicking the football together and we get whipped on the scoreboard, but we come off so happy and so excited and elated. We’re cheering each other [on about] that little thing that your teammate did, you’re calling out to them. They might have lost the ball or had done something that you would generally be told was wrong, but you saw the effort that they made. You might notice that they’ve never gotten to the ball that quickly before, so you call out to them and tell them how great that was. It just completely flips on its head what it is to win.
I think we are feeling like every single game we are winning because we are on the field now. We’re all playing together. We’re all learning. Our bodies are changing, and our confidence is improving. To some degree, we all want to win, but the scoreboard is nowhere near as important to me as it used to be.
There are these beautiful moments where you talk about the history of women’s footy that have never been documented. In fact, a lot of male critics back in the day derided and protested against women playing football, causing a lot of the women’s teams to be forgotten by history. History that has either been pushed down or denied. Thankfully, you’ve dug it up and have presented it on the screen. Can you talk about that experience of discovering that history of these teams from way back in the day?
MN: When I found out about the team in 1948, it felt so exciting. It really felt like I was uncovering gold. Also, simultaneously, it was heartbreaking because how had no one documented this properly? Why don’t we know about this? Why isn’t this common knowledge? Particularly because often in those days a lot of the women’s football teams were brought together to raise money for men’s war efforts, so there were important reasons that women were coming together to play football. It wasn’t just for the entertainment.
Finding that team was super exciting, but then I sat there and did the math, and I thought, “Oh, it’s not impossible that someone would be alive still.” When I put the call out on social media and found two sisters that were still alive, Mavis, and Lorna, I felt ‘this is incredible.’ We were still in COVID [restrictions], and Lorna had dementia, so I never got to meet her. She passed while I was making the film. Then [with] Mavis, I think as a result of the way they were treated when they played, she was embarrassed. She didn’t want to talk about it. It took a lot of conversations and cups of tea before she would agree to let me interview her and have a chat about football. I’m incredibly lucky. Her memory is phenomenal. When I gave her the photo at first, and she just starts pointing at everyone, I thought, ‘this is mind blowing.’ All of this speaks to how much she did hold on to that experience, even though outwardly she didn’t really want to talk about it.
I feel sad. This is just one team in Australia, but there would be so many of those teams, so many of those groups of women that got together to just be a bit courageous and try something and then it couldn’t get legs and it couldn’t keep going for all of the reasons that still exists today.
I imagine for you as the person behind and in front of the camera, there is that aspect of documenting the events taking place right now and thinking “We lost those stories back then, and we only have fragments of their echoes right now. Therefore, it’s even more important that we save those stories and make sure that future generations can look back and see that not only in the 1940s this took place, but that now in the 2020s, we have teams full of women and gender diverse people who are pushing for a place to play alongside everyone else.” Was that in your mind when you discovered those documents?
MN: It was the thing driving me. There were so many moments where I wanted to give up and I really should have given up, it was so hard, not just in terms of what the club was dealing with, but what was going on in my own life where I was stacked against it. I had so many moments where I thought ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ but every time I had one of those moments, I thought of all those people that were never represented. I kept feeling like this is so important.
It was one of those things where I thought ‘potentially, I’m gonna do all this work and get to the end of it and realise it was so important to only me and no one else cares.’ But then the more I started talking to people about it, and the responses I was getting [from people] who I never would have thought would be interested in football. People were welling up with tears when I’d start to talk about my experience, and they would say “I always wanted to play football as a kid and I never got the opportunity.” I started feeling like this was more important than just me. I have to keep going. I really felt like there was a force way bigger than myself pushing this forward, and I had no choice but to just hang on and go for the ride.
I’m really grateful that you pushed through. I know personally what having those moments of darkness and difficulty and self-doubt feel like. When you think ‘should I actually do this? Is this something that anybody is going to be interested in?’ But getting through to the other side and having something that you can present to people and go, “Look, this is what I made for me, maybe you might resonate with it.” And when people do resonate with it, you get the feeling that you did it for the right reasons.
MN: I got pretty obsessed with the idea of recording things. I also made a photobook to go alongside this film. I interviewed 21 of our players, because everyone had such interesting stories and photographed 45 players. I put together this photobook. At the end of the book, in the list of plates where you list what every photo is, I went so intensely meticulous on that, so every photo is detailed with the exact date it was made, the full name of the person, the location it was taken in, because I kept coming across these photos of players from 50 years ago and there’s nothing written, so you don’t know who it was or where it was or what date it was. So I became a bit obsessive about how if someone 50 years from now picks up this book, they will know exactly where, who and how it was taken.
I’ve talked to a lot of filmmakers and there have been a few who have talked about that need for creating an archive of sorts, of documenting history. A lot of them talked about the accidental nature of becoming an archivist. Would you like consider yourself having accidentally fallen into becoming an archivist?
MN: Totally. There are so many elements of it that I think from an archive perspective that is really interesting and important. Even if you think about the foundations of what it [takes] to start a new club in 2022, and all of the things that we came up against. There’s a point in the film where Lou speaks to how difficult it is to start a club, because you don’t have access to grounds, facilities, goalposts, umpires, all of that stuff. I don’t think people ever stop to think about how of course it’s so difficult because the clubs were founded and those spaces were taken 100 plus years ago, so there’s no space. So to be able to document how to start a club in 2022 [with] all the barriers and all the challenges and why those challenges exist from a historical perspective, then from a potential future perspective, [we can say] how can we make that easier? How do we create space and to be able to make room for [new football clubs]?
There’s a sense from the AFL perspective, which is predominantly a male driven organisation, that they created the AFLW, so isn’t that enough? It’s like, no, there’s so much more that needs to be done. It’s good that AFLW exists, but there are so many more steps that need to take place going forward. It’s brilliantly presented here. I hope somebody out there is listening, and goes, ‘All right. We really do need to do more.’
MN: I think there’s that sense that, ‘we created the AFLW and that will filter down to the community.’ But that’s not the case, because the AFLW has support and funding and it has attention and the community level doesn’t, so that will never filter down that way. It’s in fact the opposite. If we put time and money and attention and support into community level football, particularly if you’re creating cultures like we have at the Mount Alexander Falcons, then you’re fostering players that then end up in the elite level who are very different players.
I was thinking a lot about that in terms of the male players when I was making this film. That’s part of our impact campaign, if we can get this film into football clubs across Australia and start having those conversations then boys who are five and six grow up in an extremely different culture in terms of the football club, and by the time they reach the elite level, they’re different men, they’re different humans, and all of the issues that we have still today in terms of violence against women and terrible off field behaviour and on field behaviour, just won’t exist to the same degree, I don’t think because these men and boys have grown up in really different cultures; so, the filtering goes the total opposite way.
It’s brilliant that we’ve got the AFLW but that’s just not going to filter down to community.
When I was growing up, I was pushed into soccer and AFL and I had no interest in that, but I saw that netball happening, and I thought ‘I’d love to play that.’ It was ‘no, you can’t, that’s a girl sport.’ It wasn’t until I was much older that I was actually able to play netball. We need to break all those kinds of structures down so that it’s an open field for everybody.
As we’re leading into wrapping up, I want to talk about the Castlemaine Documentary Festival and what it means to have this film screening there for you.
MN: It’s so exciting. Initially, when we were talking about ‘where are we going to start releasing first?,’ before we even got to making any decisions, the Castlemaine Documentary Film Festival approached me. They’d heard about the film and they were interested in seeing a rough cut. I talked about that with my producer, Tony Coombs and associate producer Alex Kelly, and we all agreed, again, it’s like ‘what is the scoreboard? What is the win?’
I guess most people would think the place to premiere would be a massive internationally renowned film festival, but actually, I realised the most important thing to me in this whole process is my team and the club and how the players feel. So, the biggest win was hands down that we would premiere in our hometown with a hometown audience at the Theatre Royal, which is a venue that we all love. I couldn’t be more excited about having been selected for the Castlemaine Documentary Film Festival. I can feel already what the vibe is going to be like, on the night, it’s just going to be off the charts excitement.
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