Last year, we at LeftLion released our first feature-length documentary, telling the tale of the Notts man who founded AC Milan. In August our Editor-in-Chief Jared Wilson went out to show The Lord of Milan in two of China’s biggest sports arenas. It seems a long way from that pokey little Mansfield Road house our Herbert was born in…
So how did we end up showing this nearly 5000 miles away from our city? We were invited out there by BODA, the Beijing Olympic Development Association, an organisation who maintain the cultural legacy from the 2008 Olympics they hosted. One of the projects they run is the annual Beijing International Sports Film Week, which took place this year from Wednesday 8 - Tuesday 13 August. They asked us if they could screen our film at the 2018 festival and we were delighted to say a big “Shi”.
The Lord of Milan is LeftLion’s debut film documentary, about the life of Notts-born football pioneer Herbert Kilpin. The film was co-directed by Georgianna Scurfield and myself, with additional cinematography from Natalie Owen and Raphael Achache, and a musical score by Rob Rosa. As well as having a lovely pub named after him on Bridlesmith Walk, Herbert Kilpin is also acknowledged as the founder of AC Milan and said by some to be the “father of Italian football.” Our film covers his life, from his early days growing up on Mansfield Road to him founding the club in one of Italy's poshest hotels and then being completely forgotten for about sixty years. It also features a range of talking heads, including authors Robert Nieri and John Foot, ex-footballers Mark Hateley, Luther Blissett and Daniele Massaro, as well as a trio of quirky AC Milan fanatics.
BODA had heard about the film because they are linked to the FICTS Festival (Federation Internationale Cinema Television Sportifs), which is another annual film competition that spans 116 countries and has its final in Milan. We entered The Lord of Milan into the 2017 FICTS Festival and won two awards: the Mention D’Honneur and the WPC Media Services Award. So when it came to selecting some of their “best of” films from last year to showcase in this international year’s heats, we were delighted to be included.
Our film was shown twice during Beijing International Sports Film Week, in two of the country’s most iconic sports venues. Firstly at the Beijing National Stadium – aka The Birds Nest – which is a 90,000-seater stadium built as the centrepiece to for the 2008 Olympics. The second venue was the Beijing National Aquatics Center – aka the Watercube – which is almost pokey by comparison with a capacity of about 6,000.
I’d love to tell you that the screenings were out on the pitch, but they were of course in exhibition rooms in those vast buildings. Each one was well attended by a few hundred people, at least half of which were under-sixteens who’d been invited from local schools and sports teams. The screening was introduced by Yan Xinmin, the founder of Beijing’s Goal Film Festival and a keen advocate of football to young people in Beijing as well as being a handy footballer herself. The screening was organised by Zhang Shuai of the Beijing 2008 Olympics Committee and we were also accompanied on the day by Christine Zang from Radio Beijing, who did an extensive interview with me beforehand.
Having toured this film across various cities (prior to Beijing there have been screenings in Nottingham, Milan, Manchester and London) it’s always interesting to see how the different audiences react to various parts of it. The most significant audience reaction in China came about fifteen minutes in, where we explain that Herbert Kilpin was one of fifteen children. That moment led to audible gasps across the room. As you may know, China operated a one-child policy from 1979-2013 as a means to help control their vast and expanding population (which at 1.4billion is about 22 times as much as the UK). This was relaxed in 2013 to allow couples to have a second child and also to make a better age balance in their population. So as unusual as having fifteen children may seem to most of us, it’s even more so in a country with that level of childbirth control as a backdrop.
The overall reaction to the film was great. We did a Q&A afterwards which lasted an hour and a half, where the questions varied from “What’s Nottingham like” to “Do you know David Beckham?” Then I had my photograph taken with what seemed like every person in the room. You can’t help but stand out there if you have white skin and blue eyes.
So why the interest in this film in China? Well, firstly AC Milan are a global brand. As China Daily, the country’s biggest English-language newspaper reported in 2017: “Nielsen, a major international sports and entertainment consultancy, estimates that there are 103 million AC Milan fans in China; about a quarter of the club's global fanbase.” That seems like a slightly over-optimistic figure to us, but it’s clear that a lot of people across the vast country have an affinity for AC Milan Football Club.
China have spent big over the last few years to get major international names playing in the Chinese Super League, including the likes of Carlos Tevez (Argentina), Hulk (Brazil) and former Chelsea quartet John Obi-Mikel (Nigeria), Ricardo Carvalho (Portugal), Ramires and Oscar (both Brazil). Closer to home, the Midlands is now dominated by Chinese owners with Birmingham City (Paul Suen Cho Hung), Aston Villa (Xia Jiantong), Wolves (Fosun International) and West Brom (Lai Guochuan) all having Chinese businessmen at the helm. The interest from Chinese people in European football has never been greater.
Probably most relevant of all to our film is that in 2016 a Chinese consortium led by Li Yonghong purchased AC Milan from former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for €740 million. Their great city rivals Inter Milan were also picked up that year by Zhang Jindong of Suning Holdings Group. AC Milan were actually sold on again in July this year to the US-based Elliot Corporation, but the club still retain a strong fanbase across China.
Nottingham as a city already has strong links in China; we have been twinned with Ningbo since 2005, a city near the east coast and south of Shanghai in the Zhejiang province. The University of Nottingham also has a campus out there, which was China’s first Sino-Foreign University. Now we have a mutual appreciation of Herbert Kilpin too, with the possibility of further screenings out there to come. Forza Herbert Kilpin!
The Lord of Milan is showing at Broadway Cinema on Sunday 2 September at 8.15pm