An Inspirational “Odyssey”: An Interview with ICEF Rugby Director and Coach Stuart Krohn

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Stuart Krohn is a former rugby player, who captained the Hong Kong national rugby team in the early 1990’s. Today, he is currently the director of Los Angeles’ Inner City Education Foundation’s Rugby program. The program, in which kids play rugby and head to other countries to play other schools in a sign of respect, is the focus of the documentary Red White Black and Blue Odyssey, which is coming to VOD platforms and iTunes on August 15.

World Film Geek had the opportunity to talk with Coach Krohn about his experience and the documentary.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about Red White Black and Blue Odyssey.
Thank you! Did you get to see the film?

I actually just got to see it last night and I have to say I really enjoyed it.
That’s great to hear.

There were a few things I noticed weren’t really brought up in the film, so my first question is, how did you get involved in rugby?
I got involved with rugby at the University of Colorado-Boulder, my freshman year in 1980. I played all high school sports, you know, basketball, baseball, and football. When I arrived, they had rugby and there was someone who was also a freshman who had played the sport so he had a group of us go out there and that’s how I started playing rugby and I fell in love with it right away.

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The ICEF Rugby in China (ICEF Rugby)

How did you start the ICEF Program and how long has it been around?
ICEF, well the schools started in 1999. It was actually a rugby guy, Mike Piscal, who was a teacher at a private school here. It was one of the top schools in L.A. and he had started an afterschool program in 1996. In 1999, charter schools were just starting to pop up in L.A. and ICEF was one of the first charter school operators.

I was one of the last teachers hired at View Park Elementary School and Santa Monica Rugby Club was trying to get me hired as a rugby coach. At View Park, one of the guys from the rugby club was meeting teachers and I told them that I was a teacher as well. I was a teacher in Hong Kong and I knew even before I left Hong Kong that I wanted to start an inner-city rugby program. So it was all coming together for me, the school, the coaching Santa Monica, and the potential I saw working at this school of creating a rugby program at the school. And that’s exactly what happened. Here we are eighteen years later.

How were you approached to make a documentary about the program?
Well, the program was growing and we were taking these inner-city kids around the world, on these incredible trips because I had traveled around the world. We had the right connections and we were going to places where I already knew people that could receive us and host us. Filmmakers began coming and were interested in us. They were like, “we’d like to film you”.

I thought that could be a good thing, to get more publicity and raise money for the program, and also share what we are doing as an inspiration story. But, I felt like all these filmmakers weren’t really interested and they all had their point of view. They had their own agenda, like getting their name out there to become a better filmmaker or making money or telling the story from their point of view. I realized that’s what they do.

Then I met this filmmaker, James Brown, from New Zealand and he’s an artist. He didn’t want to exploit the story. He was from far away so he didn’t have such a set view on the subject. He lives in New Zealand and he’s not even a rugby guy. So we worked together on the first film, Red White Black and Blue. The film that you saw is a combination of three films that we made and we decided to put them together into one feature documentary, which is the Odyssey.

And after working with him, we saw how nuanced his view was. And the thing with him, and with the other filmmakers, we just said, “point the camera and shoot.” Let the kids tell their story. Don’t try to tell your own story. Let them tell it, it’s their story. Don’t try to change it. And James didn’t have to do that. He was all, “just be there” and he was so cool. The kids loved him. He’s a part of the family now.

It’s going to be sad because we had a premiere just the other night and he flew out from New Zealand for that. It’s sad because this year, we’re going to the Philippines and this is going to be the first time in several years that James and his soundman, David Green, will not be with us. It’s sad because they are part of the trips. I met the right guy. We worked so well together as a team. And that’s how we made so many trips together because it works so well.

And that’s what I really liked about the film. As you just mentioned, it was about the players being themselves and that’s what documentaries should be about. Otherwise, what would be the point of a documentary if they can’t be themselves?
Exactly and that’s why it’s so powerful. The film is very powerful. We’ve had people who’ve seen the films and they can tell that it’s “unmanufactured” (laughs). It might seem like there’s a script, but it’s that good. There are other documentaries where it feels like it’s scripted.

Were there any challenges you faced during shooting?
Hmmm…well, you have to provide funding. That’s a challenge. Raising money to do it. Yeah, and the stories were super-sensitive. I mean, I didn’t even know all the stories. I didn’t ask the kids because my relationship with them is that I’m their coach and I was their teacher before. I’m not there for the interviews, so when they’re telling their personal lives, I find out about it later from James when he’s going through the films in New Zealand.

He would go through them and think, “this is a really important story”. And that’s someone’s personal story, so that’s pretty challenging. To be respectful of their personal story, that is challenging. And for the kids, that’s a huge challenge for them. To have to endure that. Like to have their stories on there and see them grow up on screen. You know when their best side is not being shown. We all go through that stuff and even growing up as adults, we all go through that every day. There’s a moment when you see the camera and you’re just not into it and so to see these urban-based kids in New Zealand, or England, or France and they are there for two weeks, of course, they are going to act like kids. The camera’s on them so they’re gonna fuss and fight and all that stuff. So that’s tough.

We had the premiere and Jenesse’s mom was there. Jenesse is an amazing woman but we see her growing up as she’s waiting to get into college and things aren’t going so great. There was a lot of stress and that’s why she was acting that way. We see everyone grow up as a group, because they’ve known each other since fifth grade. So seeing them act the way they do is from all these years of being together so you know, that’s a challenge as well.

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Coach Stuart Krohn and players of the ICEF Rugby Programs in Hong Kong (South China Morning Post)

The documentary featured some of the players who look like the program had impacted them on various levels. Have you kept in touch with the players featured in the documentary?
All of them! I’m in touch with most of them. We actually had an Alumni Day and they actually keep in touch with us. We had our Alumni Day on the day of the premiere. We have one every summer so the school where I am at, they have a bus pick them up. They were home for summer break or they’ve graduated and live in L.A. and we took them to a beach. We played touch rugby, ate food, hung out together, then showered and went to the film premiere.

We do something like that every summer, or we go to a rugby game, or to somebody’s beach house and just hang out there. So we do that and Coach [Dave] Hughes has a Facebook page called ICEF Hughes and that’s where we are all communicating with each other. Whether or not they are in college or graduated from college, they are all on that page. We all get together to chit chat on that page.

And some of the kids actually want to be coaches. Leodes [Van Buren Jr.] wants to come back and be an English teacher, so we’re talking about that and I’m also setting some of them for internships, stuff like that. We’re pretty tight.

Finally, what is next for you and the ICEF Rugby Program?
Sustainability and a field. We’re looking for a field for ICEF Rugby as in our own field, which would also be for football, lacrosse, the field sports. I’m also looking forward to financial sustainability, like an endowment. And new leaders, the ones who will go out there and do things. I’m hoping to have some of them come back and be the future of the program and Hughes and myself are no longer here. It has to be established to the point where it will outgrow me and Dave Hughes.

Red White Black and Blue Odyssey comes to VOD and iTunes on August 15. This is a great look at a sport that has a foundation of respect, no matter where the players come from. To quote someone the documentary, it is a brotherhood, a global one at that. Thank you again for the wonderful chat.
Thank you so much! I am excited to see what you write about the film and when we do Red White Black and Blue Odyssey 2, I will definitely want to talk to you about that.

A Special Thank You goes to Katrina Wan PR and Coach Stuart Krohn for making this interview possible. For more on Coach Stuart Krohn and the ICEF Program, check out the official ICEF Rugby website.

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