Sometimes, our wildest dreams can be a nightmare in reality.
Based on the true story of Martin Bengtsson (Alfred Enoch), a promising footballer who was offered the world at the young age of sixteen. As Sweden’s top player, he is invited to play for one of Italy’s most high-profile clubs and he finally feels like he’s achieved his dream. However, this life of success comes at a much higher price than he could have imagined. The incredible pressure placed on him by the club threatens his mental health and he begins to crumble under the weight of his loneliness and sacrifice.
Written and directed by Ronnie Sandahl, Tigers is an intense film that takes the shine off the glitzy and glamorous world of professional sports and highlights the emotional damage that can be inflicted on the human soul when its trapped in an abusive environment. Whereas most sports films offer themes of the ‘triumph of the human spirit’, Tiger does so in an entirely different manner.
Based on the memoirs of the real-life Bengtsson (whom he also has a close personal friendship with), Sandhal grounds his story in the gritty reality of stardom. This is not a story about the ‘comeback kid’ or ‘unexpected hero’. Instead, Sandahl’s film points to a more psychological triumph in the face of abuse. Set at a time when mental health was rarely discussed in the world of sports, Tigers pulls back the curtain on the intense pressure that players experience at the hands of clubs who demand the highest levels of performance. In some ways, its fair to expect that sports clubs expect to get the most out of their substantial investments. However, Tigers highlights the unbelievable emotional toll that this sort of environment can take on the players themselves as teams view their players more as ‘commodities’ than they are as human beings,.
Centering the film around young Enoch’s performance, the camera rarely deviates from his face, revealing the internal anguish that he’s experiencing. Wherever he goes, Sandahl wants us to watch him. Like the world around him, this is a story that is intently focused on the abilities of its star. (In fact, it’s worth noting that he even zooms in on Enoch during in-game scenes instead of broadening the shot to include wide crowd shots. Rather to portray these as moments of celebration, Tigers insists that we intently watch the young man for his own safety.) Even so, Enoch does an excellent job portraying both the innocence and insecurity in the eyes of youth. the pressures of stardom begin to take their toll, we both hope for him and fear for him at the same time.
The film gains its title from a photograph featuring a caged tiger who eventually turns on his owners. Wild at heart, this beast of the jungle may be locked away but his soul yearns for freedom. Visually, Sandhal reinforces this metaphor by enclosing Bengtsson in cages throughout the entire film. Whether it’s in his training facility or in hospital, we recognize quickly that Martin is unable to move or breathe. Like the animal itself, Bengtsson is a man repressed from the outside while the rage continues to build within him.
At a deeper level, one of the more intriguing conversations going on within the film is the value of the human soul. Having worked his entire life to become a professional soccer player, Martin has finally achieved his dream. However, the fame he has fought for comes at a price. Because they are essentially owned by the club they work for, high-level players are treated as commodities to be bought and sold at will. As they bring their clubs glory, so too are their livelihoods lie fully in the hands of those that write their paychecks.
Pressured to produce, the joy of his experience evaporates quickly, leaving Martin feeling empty inside. However, when he experiences love for the first time, he begins to feel a sense of rebirth inside. To Martin, there is a sense of refreshing that takes place when someone finally values him for himself as opposed to their expectations of him. As a result, hope and healing begin to replace the feelings of anxiety and anger. Of course, this creates an emotional tension within him, especially as the club further tightens its grip upon him. But the proverbial damage has been done. Despite the best efforts of his team to force him into their mold, life has been sprung within his soul once again. Suddenly, he begins to wonder if the very thing he has wanted most may not in fact be that thing he wants most.
Suddenly, there is a world beyond his obsession.
Poetic and powerful, Tigers is a deeply affective journey. Rooted in his friendship with the real-life Bengtsson, Sandhal’s story feels personal and real as it explores what it means to be valued in a world where the financial bottom line matters more than a player’s humanity. Though he was one of the first to speak out about his suffering, Bengsston’s story still resonates today in a world where salaries continue to rise and social media keeps a close eye on the lives of its stars. Most importantly, Tigers serves as a reminder that he is not alone.
To hear our conversation with writer/director Ronnie Sandahl, click here (YouTube) and here (audio).
Tigers is Sweden’s submission in the Best Foreign Language category for the 2022 Academy Awards.