When The Referees made its debut on the festival circuit in 2009 it appeared under the title Kill The Referee. While it's easy to understand why the filmmakers have subsequently opted for a less lurid title, the film's original name does emphasis the serious consequences that football referees' decisions can have. In the 2008 European Championships, the English referee Howard Webb gave a penalty against Poland in the last minute of their match with co-hosts Austria. Replays showed that the decision was justified, and many praised Webb for having the courage to penalise the kind of offence that often goes unpunished, but viewers in Poland were less impressed. Death threats immediately appeared on the internet in videos comparing Webb to Hitler, and even the country's Prime Minister said he felt like killing the referee.
All of which is an undeniably absurd reaction to the decision of one man in the midst of a sporting contest, but little about football these days is rational and referees have had to become accustomed to abusive tirades, as players, managers and supporters use them as a convenient scapegoat for failure. Theirs is a lonely, singular profession, and few can understand why they put themselves through such a thankless task, so a film like The Referees has plenty to interest football fans. This documentary by Belgian filmmaker Yves Hinant makes the most of an all-access pass behind the scenes of Euro 2008 to shows the tournament from the perspective of the men in the middle. We join the anxious referees and their assistants inside the dressing rooms as they prepare for the match, we eavesdrop on the running conversations they have during play, and we stay with them throughout the often painful and humiliating aftermath, as the split-second decisions they have to make in the heat of the moment are analysed from multiple angles.
The access to the microphones the referees wear is perhaps The Referees' most enlightening aspect. The officials are constantly double-checking their calls with each other and often appear wracked with self-doubt ("We are not Gods, we make mistakes," one tells a complaining player). When Webb's linesman Darren Cann fails to spot an offside in the build-up to a goal, he immediately begins to question the validity of his decision, but it's too late; the goal has been given and play has restarted. All Cann can do is try to see out the rest of the game without incident and wait for the inevitable inquest the following day, both from the media and from the refereeing panel that goes over the previous day's match with the individuals involved.
This is intriguing material for fans who have rarely been allowed such a detailed glimpse into the world of referees (though I remember with fondness an 80's experiment in which David Ellery wore a mic during an Arsenal match and had Tony Adams screaming abuse at him for 90 minutes). The film isn't all that revelatory, but it does provide small nuggets of insight. I was struck by the sense of competitiveness that exists alongside the referees' camaraderie, with all of them desperate to be awarded the final (one is extremely upset when his last chance passes him by), and the divided loyalties on display when their own nations are in action is also notable – defeat, of course, would increase their own odds of staying in the competition. If the film's aim is to put a human face on the match officials then it's a success. Seeing the pride they and their families take in a job well done and seeing how emotionally involved they can get with their role does provide us with a fresh context for men who are usually cast all too easily as the villains of the piece.
How interesting The Referees will be to non-football fans is open to debate, though. Hinant has cut his film down to its essence, excising any commentary or captions that might provide context and instead letting the footage he captures tell its own story. This means the film can feel formless and occasionally confusing (even for someone like me who watched almost all of the games at that tournament), but for the most part Hinant uses his 77 minutes well. Refereeing is a strange business, as emphasised by a quote towards the end of the film that states the officials did a good job because "nobody is talking about the referee." To err is human, but we often seem to forget that referees are only human, always noticing the mistakes they make and quickly forgetting whatever good work they have done during the 90 minutes. Bearing that in mind, it's hard to begrudge a film that attempts to show these much-maligned figures in a different light.