For many, it is difficult to imagine living with Down syndrome, its challenges as well as its beauties, but “Mighty Penguins” is a film that achieves exactly that.
It gives you a glimpse into such a world and what we find is one filled with passion, love and emotional intelligence, but also complicated by hardships and prejudice.
This weekend, the film sees its premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Using the story of the Brentford Penguins, a football team in West London for children with Down syndrome, “Mighty Penguins” challenges our preconceptions of the condition.
It is a film I co-directed and co-produced — It Was All a Dream Productions — with Louis Myles, a British-Irish filmmaker from Fever Media, who recently won the coveted Best Documentary award at the AIPS Awards. “Mighty Penguins” is part of a series produced by John Skipper’s Meadowlark Media and Firelight Media, titled “Sports Explains the World.”
By taking you in to the world through the lens of a child with Down syndrome, “Mighty Penguins” allows you to explore life free of the prejudices that come with adulthood. The film is filled with laughs and tears as the emotional human story is told.
Affectionately titled the Brentford Penguins, the soccer team for children with Down syndrome was created by Allan Cockram, a former professional footballer for Brentford Football Club.
Allan was a Jack the Lad-type footballer in the 1980s. Brentford FC’s supporters all related to his down-to-earth shenanigans and adored him. Famed for his mullet, or “flowing locks” as he lovingly refers to his formerly long hair, Allan struggled after retiring from the sport. The income for footballers in the lower English leagues at the time was not the best, he found himself working as a taxi driver and searching for a purpose.
It was only until Phil, a young child with Down syndrome, became a regular pick-up for Allan did he find inspiration once again. The brutal honesty of Phil and pure love toward others moved Allan, and they often found themselves playing football in the park. But Phil sadly passed away, still a high school teenager, affecting Allan deeply. However, it was this heart-breaking death that motivated the birth of the Brentford Penguins.
The team meets every Sunday morning, come rain or shine for training sessions at Gunnersbury Park, London. What the film shows is that this is no ordinary football team, but more a family. You are taken to see these weekly training sessions through a cinema verite-style lens, as well as an intimate look into the lives of three of the children, Special K, Captain Charlie and Peanut.
The film follows the team as they prepare for their moment in the spotlight at an English Premier League match. They are tasked with being guard of honor for Brentford versus Leicester at the G-Tech Community Stadium. Although seen as a small gesture of goodwill by many, the moment means so much more for the Penguins. It represents a flourishing community being welcomed into wider society.
Despite being made up of players who are sometimes not included in mainstream events, the team discovers a community built around football for itself. Led by Allan, who we discover has had to struggle with his own demons but thrives as a Pied Piper character to the Penguins, the team together build their own support system as they show how football transcends mere entertainment.
There have been plenty of stories that show how sport can impact wider society. The Iraqi men’s 2007 Asia Cup football victory managed to put a pause on the civil war ravaging the country, for example. Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup helping quash Islamophobia across the globe, is another. The Brentford Penguins really have managed to shape their own story too.
Underpinning the film is the importance of community and the battle against loneliness. This is what drives the narrative as those portrayed search for their own acceptance in life before eventually finding it.
Expectant parents often fear that their children could be born with Down syndrome, but Mighty Penguins shows how beautiful each of the children truly are. The crew fell in love with all the participants and the journey of getting to know the Brentford Penguins has been an emotional journey filled with laughs and tears, just as the film reflects. We will forever be part of the Penguin family.
The film is truly a must-watch.