It was an ending that pleased Kirk Wolfinger the father and delighted Kirk Wolfinger the filmmaker.

The 2007 high school football showdown between perennial power Mountain Valley and upstart Cape Elizabeth was a turning point not only for both teams but for the 56-year-old documentary fillmmaker, who has done more than 200 films for television that have appeared on programs such as PBS’ Nova.

Wolfinger’s son, Ezra, was a sophomore defensive back for the Capers, so the 16-14 Capers victory made him proud. But what happened after the game gave him something he couldn’t have expected.

The post-game scene is the climax of Wolfinger’s film, “The Rivals”, a documentary chronicling the budding football rivalry between the struggling mill town and the affluent suburb, which will be screened at Mountain Valley High School on Friday. The victory gave the unbeaten Capers the Campbell Conference regular-season title and provoked a mad rush onto its new artificial turf field by a couple of hundred fans. Players were caught up in the celebration while a stunned Mountain Valley squad waited at the 50-yard-line for the traditional post-game handshake.

As Cape Elizabeth coach Aaron Filieo and quarterback Jim Bump tried to pull the Capers from the celebration for the midfield meeting, Mountain Valley coach Jim Aylward, feeling his team was being disrespected, sent his team off the field. He eventually called them back, then confronted Filieo to voice his displeasure.

“At that moment I had a great film. Up until then, I had a good
film,”  said Wolfinger, who operates Lone Wolf Documentary Group out of South Portland. “I had a film about these two teams and these
two cultures and the underdog on the football field beats the reigning
champ and I could have ended it right there and it would have been a
good sports film.”

“But at that moment, I had a great film about
these two towns, these two teams, and what it means to deal with
winning and losing,” he said. “That was a moment where great tension
and drama comes to a head.”

Aylward also lashed out at Wolfinger after the game, saying the film made his team into a target rather than a rival. The next day, Aylward apologized for his outburst (which is captured in the film’s entertaining outtakes
during the closing credits). The only football coach in the school’s history then explained on camera that the
game awakened a passion in him that he hadn’t felt in five years.
The younger Filieo, meanwhile, compared Aylward’s post-game scolding to
being yelled at by his father as a boy.

“Great drama is when your lead characters
have an epiphany,” Wolfinger said, “and both of them that night had one, and they talked
about it eloquently in the week that followed.”

The film reveals Aylward’s love for coaching, football and, above all else, his players. Fiieo’s struggle to provide for his young family while coaching in one of the state’s richest communities is also explored. It is those insights that ultimately send “The Rivals” beyond a football film involving two divergent communities.

No doubt, the blue collar vs. white collar theme is the film’s backbone. Viewers learn early that Cape Elizabeth students have countless more opportunities in every day life than their Mountain Valley peers. But Fileo and his players badly want what Mountain Valley has on the gridiron — a winning tradition that is the pride of their community.

Big-time football

Wolfinger realized that tension when Ezra was a freshman and the Capers travelled to Rumford’s Hosmer Field for the 2006 regular-season finale. That game was another showdown between unbeaten teams. Even though it was less hyped than its sequel would be the next year, Wolfinger, who was filming a highlight reel for the team, was intrigued by the atmosphere. 

“I went into
Hosmer Field and for the first time all year, I got the sense that this
way, quote, ‘big-time football,'” he said. “I could sense there was an undercurrent here that was dramatic. That’s what I do. I try to tap into that stuff.”

Wolfinger quickly got Filieo and Aylward’s consent to film their teams throughout the 2007 season. As the season unfolded, he got even more behind-the-scenes access than he expected.

“The coaches never once said to me, ‘I don’t want you in here right
now. I’m going to be doing some stuff here or talking to the kids in a
way that I don’t want to be filmed doing,'” Wolfinger said. “That was
tremendously brave of them.”

The film also focuses on a number of players on both sides. Wolfinger sent a young intern from the University of Southern Maine, Dan Sites, and cameraman Joe Burnett to Rumford. They spent 12 days following Mountain Valley players at practice and at home.

Sites, who grew up in a mill town and went to a football-crazed high school, said the Mountain Valley kids were quicker to warm up to him than the Cape Elizabeth kids.

“I’m pretty young and Joe is pretty young, too. I thought the kids
would drop their guard a little bit and open up a little,” said Sites, now an associate producer at Lone Wolf. “They were a little suspicious of our ulterior motives at first, but when I told them I was from Norridgewock and went to Skowhegan High School, they relaxed a lot more.”

One of the stars of the film is then-senior Dean McCrillis, who shows off his art work and discusses his hopes to go to art school. Cape players, such as Adam Danielson, also reveal their own hopes for future. Again, the disparity between the two towns comes into play in the film. While Danielson and other Cape
players talk about their plans to attend Boston College, Bucknell or
Vassar, McCrillis and his father discuss selling Dean’s vast comic book collection to help pay for school. Some of McCrillis’ teammates talk about joining the military to afford college. None see a future in the declining paper mill that is the town’s economic center.

Pointing out a reality

Just as it looms over Rumford and Mexico, the paper mill is unavoidable in “The Rivals.”

“One newspaper review said they thought we were hitting him over the
head kind of hard with almost every shot of Rumford having a mill in
it,” Wolfinger said. “No matter where you stand in Rumford, you can see
that mill. It wasn’t meant to hit anyone over the head. We’re pointing
out a reality, which is, no matter where you go, there it is.”

Stereotypes were also unavoidable, Wolfinger said. He knew they would pop up in the film. The important thing was to not pass judgment on them in the film.

Matt Kaubris, who organized the Rumford screening, said the film deals with that deftly.

“Of course, there was some concern from the local folks about how Rumford would be portrayed,” he said. “He did a great job of handling it correctly and sensitively.”

“There was a time where I referred to it as ‘the haves and have-nots,'”
Wolfinger said. “That was inflammatory with the folks in Rumford and they were right.
That was a miscue on my part.”

But Wolfinger noted he took more flak for “The Rivals” title than anything else. For much of the 2007 season, Mountain Valley fans, players and coaches argued that there was no rivalry or that their team’s real rivals came from more established football programs such as York.

“It’s all valid, but I think that they found out that year that there is a rivalry there,” Sites said.

Sites logged 300 hours worth of film for the production, which cost $160,000. The Smithsonian Channel paid Wolfinger $135,000 for the rights to broadcast the film in 2010 and gave him permission to screen it at a number of film festivals. The film received a standing ovation from an audience rife with Mountain Valley and Cape Elizabeth partisans at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville last month.

Wolfinger said he is proud of the reception he has received from both communities so far and just as proud that the film was made almost entirely by Mainers. 

“I had an awful lot of fun making it,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 28 years. I’ve probably made over 200 films for television and this is the first one that I’ve made just exactly the way I wanted to.”

Wolfinger plans to attend Friday’s screening, which will be shown in the Muskie Auditorium at Mountain Valley High School. The film begins at 7 p.m., but viewers should arrive early (doors open at  6 p.m.). The majority of proceeds will go to the family of Danny Garneau, a Mountain Valley student and football player who is being treated for leukemia. There will be concessions, a 50/50 raffle and raffles for prizes, including New England Patriots tickets. Oxford Federal Credit Union of Mexico and Headlight Audio Visual of Portland are the sponsors.

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