March 10, 2010

They've got game

RAY ROUTHIER

— By

Staff Writer

Kirk Wolfinger remembers making his first trip to Hosmer Field in Rumford a few years ago, to watch his son and the Cape Elizabeth High School football team battle perennial powerhouse Mountain Valley on its home turf.

The smokestacks and brick factories reminded Wolfinger of the steel mills of Bethlehem, Pa., where his father had worked. And the signs he saw among the passionate Mountain Valley fans reminded him that Cape Elizabeth and Rumford have some glaring differences.

''I saw signs that said, 'Nice cars, nice houses. State champs? No way,''' said Wolfinger. ''To me, it said, 'You guys have everything, but not great football like we have here.' I thought that was an interesting comment.''

Wolfinger, a 56-year-old documentary filmmaker whose work regularly appears on TV networks, decided the budding rivalry between the two schools in two very different parts of Maine would make a compelling film. Cape Elizabeth has only had varsity football since 2003, yet its team has faced Mountain Valley in the state's Western Class B finals for each of the last three years.

So in 2006 and 2007, Wolfinger spent lots of time (and his own money) filming the two teams in action and spending time with the coaches, players and town residents.

The result was the film ''The Rivals,'' which will kick off the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville on Friday. It's also been picked up by the new Smithsonian Channel cable network, where it is scheduled to air sometime next year.

CONTRASTS AND SIMILARITIES

People who have seen ''The Rivals,'' including the coaches of both teams, say the differences between the towns are certainly evident.

Cape Elizabeth is a Portland suburb and one of the state's wealthier communities, while Rumford is a worn mill town in a rural and somewhat isolated part of the state, where economic opportunities are far more scarce.

But in the film, they say, the similarities among the players, coaches, fans and families are the focus.

''I think the film shows we have a heck of a lot of similarities -- our kids, our coaches. They have the same level of commitment, the same hopes and dreams,'' said Jim Aylward, 47, a Rumford native who has coached Mountain Valley for 20 years and has won three Class B state titles in the last five years.

''It portrays our community well,'' Aylward said. ''We have a community that invests a lot in their kids, and we don't have a lot to invest. We have a lot of families who really care about their kids.''

Although Wolfinger began making the film on his own, he almost accidently pitched the idea to the new Smithsonian Channel cable network, a partnership between the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Showtime cable network.

David Royle, executive vice president of production and programming for the Smithsonian Channel, said as soon as he saw some of Wolfinger's raw footage, he knew the story was a ''slice of Americana'' that his network would be interested in. So the network backed the film by supplying about $130,000, leaving Wolfinger the other $40,000 or so of the film's costs.

''He had come to see me and he pitched some big ideas, but then when I asked what else he was up to, he told me about this, which sounded much more interesting than the big ideas,'' Royle said. ''We want this network to tell America's stories, and that's what this film is.''

Royle says that Wolfinger, whose company, Lone Wolf Documentary Group, is based in South Portland, is well-known in the TV industry for his body of work.

Wolfinger's company has created many episodes of ''Nova'' for PBS, as well as films for the History Channel and TBS. ''Titanic's Final Moments: The Missing Pieces'' for the History Channel and ''To the Moon'' for ''Nova'' are among his recent films.

AVOIDING STEREOTYPES

While Wolfinger got a lot of cooperation from both communities and both teams, not everyone has been excited about the idea of putting the Rumford/Cape Elizabeth rivalry up on a screen.

Some thought he was just making a film about his son, Ezra, who was the back-up quarterback when the film was shot and has since become a starter. Some worried the film would promote stereotypes that depict everyone in Cape Elizabeth as rich and everyone in Rumford as poor.

Wolfinger says he's responsible for some of that worry, because he posted about five minutes' worth of footage and interviews on YouTube that did paint some pretty stark distinctions between the places.

But at 90 minutes long, ''The Rivals'' takes a much broader look at the people and the towns, he says.

Some people tell Wolfinger he's creating a rivalry that doesn't exist. The players and coaches disagree.

''Yeah, it's a rivalry. Not a geographic one, but one based on the level of play of both teams, on the fact we've played each other in the finals so often,'' said Aaron Filieo, 34, coach of the Cape Elizabeth team. ''We want to beat Mountain Valley because they're the best.''

Filieo, who grew up in South Portland, almost bought into stereotypes about Cape Elizabeth himself. When he took the job, he wasn't ''convinced all the kids would have the work ethic'' needed to build a high-caliber football team. But his players proved him wrong.

And he thinks Wolfinger's film proves stereotypes about both Cape Elizabeth and Rumford are wrong.

''When you peel away the exterior layers of living in Rumford or Cape Elizabeth, the core of it is the coaches, players and parents. We're all in the same boat,'' Filieo said.

COMMUNITY CARES

Still, it's a fact that at Mountain Valley, which includes students from four towns, the high school football team is a central focus for people in a large geographic area.

In Greater Portland, every town has a high school, and Portland has professional baseball, hockey and basketball teams to boot.

Former Cape Elizabeth quarterback Jimmy Bump found that out in 2006, when he was playing at Rumford and suffered a broken collarbone and was taken to the local hospital.

''While I was at the hospital, I had to listen to the entire rest of the game on the radio with all the doctors and nurses cheering (Mountain Valley) on. It sucked, but it was beautiful,'' said Bump, who graduated in 2008 and is attending the University of Kentucky. ''I can honestly say we were striving to be a program like Mountain Valley.''

Both Filieo and Aylward say having cameras film their practices and games took a little getting used to, but ended up not being a distraction. And neither was worried about how his team would come across on film.

''I knew our kids would never conduct themselves in a way that would embarrass themselves or our community, so I said, 'Why the heck not? Maybe they deserve this,''' Aylward said.

After its premiere on Friday, Wolfinger will start entering ''The Rivals'' in major film festivals, such as Sundance. After its festival run, it will air on the Smithsonian Channel, probably in 2010.

It will also be available for sale on DVD at that point, Wolfinger said.

''I'm always (making films about) other people's ideas, whether it's the Titanic or bio-terror or diving,'' Wolfinger said. ''So this was great for me, to do a story that takes a look at who we are, and that even though we may seem different, our goals and passions and dreams are very similar.''

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

rrouthier@pressherald.com

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