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Sundance 2021 Review: Captains of Zaatari – “A beautifully shot, intimate portrait of friendship”

A still from Captains of Zaatari by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

“All a refugee needs is an opportunity, not your pity.”

These compelling words are spoken by Mahmoud, one of the subjects of director Ali El Arabi‘s hopeful documentary Captains of Zaatari.  Located in Jordan, Zaatari is the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, hosting 80,000 Syrians forced to flee due to the war in that country.  According to Oxfam, over half of these refugees are children.  At the time this documentary was filmed, two of those children were Mahmoud and his best friend Fawzi, two young men with dreams of being professional footballers.

Check out our Sundance Film Festival coverageThe football pitch in the camp is gravel, dust rising through the air as players and soccer ball travel from end to end.   The boys train and play in the lead up to a tournament where, as part of an UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) initiative they have the chance of being selected to travel to Qatar.  Once there, they’ll be playing and training at the Aspire Academy, a high level facility that provides opportunities for international players.  At this point it is 2017 and their dreams are closer than they had even imagined.

Their stories are not without setbacks, especially for the slightly older Fawzi who already gets looked over once due simply to his age.  His father is also outside Zaatari, needing health care, and is unable to be reunited with his family inside the camp.  Once Fawzi eventually joins Mahmoud in Qatar, he still has to battle injury, loss, and the stress of his father’s medical diagnosis.  Yet nothing beats the look of joy on both their faces as they sink their feet into the grass as they play barefoot on the pitch at the academy, or as they meet some of their football idols, or while they are touring around Qatar.  For these boys used to living amongst the minimal aluminium shelters and secured walls of arid Zaatari this is paradise.

First time director Ali El Arabi creates a narrative style with his documentary that at times feels more like a drama than reality.  He whittled 700 hours of footage from over a six year span of filming into a mere 73 minutes of screen time which certainly allowed him to give a clear trajectory to this story.  But Mahmoud and Fawzi are compelling subjects and their determination and optimism is contagious.  Their conversations together, about girls and love, about school and success, about their setbacks, are all endearing, candid moments between two best friends.

With Captains of Zaatari, El Arabi’s ultimate goal is, as he describes, to “stir the stagnant waters,” to get policymakers to look at the obstacles refugees face, not only in sport, but with regards to opportunity in general.  Their status as refugees restricts free movement, their lack of nutrition presents a hurdle for athletic excellence.  In the camps, there is also a lack of education, a lack of medical care. Ultimately El Arabi brings all of these important issues into focus and also crafts a beautifully shot, intimate portrait of friendship and what it means to have a dream.

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