How Jaiyah Saelua’s Story Was Told in Next Goal Wins?

Jaiyah Saelua

Jaiyah Saelua is a soccer star who made history as the first openly trans athlete to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. She is also a fa’afafine, a third gender that is widely accepted in Samoan culture. Her story was partly told in the film Next Goal Wins, directed by Taika Waititi, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2023. However, Saelua has complicated feelings about the film, which focuses more on her coach, Thomas Rongen, than on her own identity and achievements.

Jaiyah Saelua

A Groundbreaking Trans Athlete

Saelua started playing soccer at the age of 11 and joined the American Samoa national team when she was 14. She played her first international match when she was 16, and became a regular starter by 2011. She was part of the team that achieved its first-ever win in a World Cup qualifier, beating Tonga 2-1. She made a crucial tackle in the last minute of the game, preventing a possible equalizer. She was praised by her coach and teammates for her performance and courage.

Saelua is proud of her fa’afafine identity, which means “way of the woman” in Samoan. She says that fa’afafine is more than an identity, but a way of life. She says that she was always accepted by her family and community and that she never faced discrimination or harassment on the field. She says that soccer gave her the space to be herself and that she was judged by her skills and not by her gender expression.

A Hollywood Film That Misses the Mark

Saelua’s story, along with the story of the American Samoa team, was featured in the 2014 documentary Next Goal Wins, which received positive reviews and global recognition. The documentary showed the struggles and triumphs of the team, as well as the personal stories of some of the players, including Saelua. The documentary also highlighted the role of Rongen, a Dutch-American coach who was hired to improve the team’s performance and morale.

In 2023, a fictionalized version of the documentary, also titled Next Goal Wins, was released, directed by Taika Waititi, a New Zealand filmmaker of Maori and Jewish descent. The film starred Michael Fassbender as Rongen, and Kaimana, a fa’afafine actor, as Saelua. The film was billed as a comedy-drama that celebrates the underdog spirit and the diversity of the team.

However, the film received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, who accused it of being insensitive, stereotypical, and transphobic. Some of the criticisms were:

  • The film focused more on Rongen’s character arc than on Saelua’s, making her a secondary and tokenized character.
  • The film played with transphobia for laughs, such as when Rongen mistakes Saelua for a woman and tries to flirt with her, or when he makes jokes about her genitals and sexuality.
  • The film erased the cultural and historical context of fa’afafine and portrayed Saelua as a generic trans woman who wants to transition and have surgery, which is not true for all fa’afafine.
  • The film ignored the challenges and discrimination that Saelua and other trans and fa’afafine athletes face in the sports world, such as the lack of recognition, representation, and inclusion.

Saelua’s Reaction to the Film

Saelua attended the premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, along with Waititi and Rongen. She said that she was grateful for the opportunity to share her story with the world and that she hoped the film would inspire other trans and fa’afafine people to pursue their dreams. She also said that she had a good relationship with Kaimana, the actor who played her and that they bonded over their shared identity and experiences.

However, Saelua also expressed some disappointment and frustration with the film, and how it portrayed her and her team. She said that the film was not accurate and that it exaggerated and distorted some of the events and characters. She said that the film did not capture the essence and spirit of the team and that it reduced them to stereotypes and cliches. She said that the film did not respect her fa’afafine identity and that it misrepresented her goals and desires. She said that she did not want to transition or have surgery and that she was happy with her body and gender expression.

Saelua said that she understood that the film was made for entertainment purposes and that Waititi had the artistic freedom to do as he pleased. However, she said that she wished the film had been more honest and respectful and that it had given more voice and agency to her and her teammates. She said that she hoped that the film would not overshadow or erase the reality and complexity of her story, and that of other trans and fa’afafine people.

By Kane Wilson

Kane Wilson, founder of this news website, is a seasoned news editor renowned for his analytical skills and meticulous approach to storytelling. His journey in journalism began as a local reporter, and he quickly climbed the ranks due to his talent for unearthing compelling stories. Kane completed his Master’s degree in Media Studies from Northwestern University and spent several years in broadcast journalism prior to co-founding this platform. His dedication to delivering unbiased news and ability to present complex issues in an easily digestible format make him an influential voice in the industry.

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