A scene from Adam Sobel's "The Workers Cup"

Interview: Adam Sobel on Leaving it All on the Field with “The Workers Cup”

There’s an extraordinary moment in “The Workers Cup” when Paul, a migrant worker from Nairobi is sitting around the table from his fellow workers in cafeteria in Doha, Qatar, asking others what their idea of freedom is. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think this exchange might’ve been encouraged by the filmmakers, but director Adam Sobel is more than happy not to take credit for it, wondering himself what inspired Paul to ponder something so profound.

“This question gets knocked around the table and then finally someone asks him why did you ask us that question? And [Paul] says, “It’s because this journalist asked me at the last match and my mind drew a blank,” says Sobel, a journalist himself whose work has been in The Guardian and CNN. “Here that journalist in that moment asks him this very personal question and Paul has nothing to say to her, but here we are then weeks after the fact and he’s been ruminating on this question and suddenly he knows what he wants to say and we happen to have a camera there that empowers him to say it and make sure his voice is heard.”

This is exactly what Sobel had been chasing when he set out to make “The Workers Cup,” having all too often been in the shoes of being the reporter who was pressed for time. Never having enough access to the workers from all around the world who had been brought to Doha to prepare the Khalifa International Stadium for the 2022 World Cup, toiling under inhumane conditions seven days a week, the first-time filmmaker managed to get his camera into the labor camps under the auspices of a documentary about the rare bit of benevolence happening in the Gulf – a soccer tournament set up for the laborers to participate in as a rare respite from their construction work. While “The Workers Cup” takes the shape of a traditional sports documentary, following a season for one of the teams participating in the tourney — GCC — made up of workers from Ghana, Nepal and India, among other countries, it is able to get its arms around something far more amorphous in illustrating how one of the world’s richest nations is building a testament to its wealth for the world to see on the backs of some of the least fortunate, who are only in Qatar because they’ve been deprived of economic opportunity elsewhere.

Equally engaging for pulling the curtain back on how the global supply chain works as it is for intimately getting to know these men who so often are reduced in description to the labor they perform, “The Workers Cup” has been astounding audiences around the world since it premiered at Sundance last year and after finally touching back down in America, Sobel spoke about a film that he initially didn’t envision as a feature, earning the trust of both the workers and those in charge of the stadium construction and all the steps he took to make sure nothing got lost in translation.

A scene from Adam Sobel's "The Workers Cup"How did this come about?

I lived in Qatar for five years and once I got there, I started working with Rosie Garthwaite and Ramzy Haddad, the two producers of the film, andd we were producing news and documentaries around the region. Whenever we were requested to do a story in Qatar by different international news outlets, it was almost always about migrant workers who were building the [stadium for the] World Cup. We had covered that story for CNN, BBC and HBO, but it felt like we only scratched the surface because this is a very sensitive subject and media restrictions are really significant, so we’d have to hide people’s identities or work undercover. We just felt like the human touch was missing and we always wanted to go beyond the headlines and approach the story on the terms of the workers instead of on our own terms – in terms of the international media, but that requires real access. Once this tournament, the Workers Cup, got announced, we knew that there was a promotional element that they were interested in highlighting – it was being organized by the same committee that was organizing the World Cup – and we thought perhaps that’s an opportunity for us to gain the access that we’d been looking for.

The film does have a cinematic language to it – was it different to approach the story as a feature rather than the perspective you’d be delivering the news?

The most important thing to say is that we didn’t know it was a feature film at first. When we got access to go shoot in the labor camps, we’d think, “This is going to be a three-minute film, but then somebody is going to shut us down.” And then we went back and we filmed a little bit more and then we thought, “Oh, this’ll be a nice little five-minute film, but certainly somebody’s going to shut us down, surely.” After a while, we were like, “Maybe this is like a half-hour documentary. But somebody will shut us down.” And somehow we just going back day after day, week after week, month after month and before we knew it we had a feature.

In terms of the cinematic language, we lived in Qatar and I didn’t want to approach this issue in the way that news has because I thought a lot of the news pieces around this issue looked at the workers as if they were resources and nothing else, and because we lived there, we didn’t want to get deported, but we didn’t want to have to work undercover. We didn’t want to have to hide people’s identities and put ourselves and our characters in jeopardy, so that meant that we had to find a way to make a film that was critical, but in a nuanced way, and I relied heavily on juxtaposition and on the composition of shots to make our point that this was a system that was wrong. Ultimately, this is not an expose in the traditional news sense because I don’t think that we reveal new evidence about the working conditions in Qatar, but what I think that we do is we hold up the characters’ dignity as the only evidence that you need to say that this is really wrong. This system isn’t working.

A scene from Adam Sobel's "The Workers Cup"Were there initial parameters of what you could cover on the ground? I imagine it might’ve started with soccer-related activities only, but obviously you make your way into their living quarters and daily lives away from the stadium.

The only parameter that was really put on us at the beginning was that we could only film with the soccer players that were taking part in the tournament. At first, I thought that was going to handcuff me as a storyteller, but in actuality, I eventually realized that was the secret sauce that made the film really work because we were able to unpack this entire theme through the lens of the soccer tournament. That made the film much more narratively driven, and through the team and the soccer tournament, we were able to access all the isolation, loneliness and vulnerability that exists for the lives of our characters and we could contrast that with the passion and the zest that they have for when they’re on the field, so that became a powerful dynamic to play with.

Was there anything that drew you to GCC as a group of players to follow?

I was drawn to GCC for a couple reasons. Certainly the multiethnic array of workers that were competing for the team was really interesting because the labor camps, and Qatar [more] broadly, are segregated by race and by nationality, so I thought it’ll be interesting to see how this team comes together. That was an interesting panorama of nationalities that properly represented migrant workers more broadly across the country. But they [also] had this great energy about them and they surprised me. Like I did not expect to meet Kenneth, who saw the tournament as a chance to attract the eye of a professional scout. I always thought the tournament would represent a metaphorical escape from their lives, but I never expected anyone to see it as a literal escape, like, “Hey, I can use this to transcend my station in life,” so that was surprising and enticing as a storyteller.

A scene from Adam Sobel's "The Workers Cup"With such a multiethnic squad, was translation an issue?

That is a real practical problem when you’re making this film. [laughs] There were varying levels of English. Although Arabic is the national language of Qatar, English is the language of business there and it becomes the lingua franca within the labor camp and is what tends to get spoken the most. The characters’ English was on different levels and sometimes you find yourself gravitating towards people whose English is stronger just because it’s easier to communicate with them, but then it was really important to not just focus on people who had advanced English language skills, so we had translators come in.

But it was challenging because there are only eight languages in the final cut, but there are nine languages that we had to translate during the editing just to make the film and [during filming] you’d have to prioritize – Umesh is from Kerala, which is a state in the South of India and the language in Kerala is called Malayalam and if we’re going to shoot Umesh, then we need a Malayalam speaker with us and there are very, very few true Malayalam translators in Qatar, so that’s not how we would go about translating. We’d have a production assistant, a student who was hoping to be a filmmaker someday, to tag along and that became our translator or sometimes if he wasn’t available, because again this is just a low-budget independent documentary, you’d see another worker in the camp who’s willing to do some translation, and then they become the translator. Then if you were with Padam, we’d need a Nepali translator and for Samuel, there was no Ganan translator available, so we just used one of Samuel’s friends in the camp and certainly on location, you’re not aware fully of what you’re capturing. You think you know, but then sometimes you get back into the edit and once you send the rushes away to be properly translated, you’re very surprised by what you find. [laughs] Sometimes you think you got something very special and then you find out the conversation didn’t go quite the way you expected it, and sometimes it’s for the better.

A scene from Adam Sobel's "The Workers Cup"I understand you had to work towards earning their trust because naturally they were fearful of losing their employment if they might say the wrong thing on camera. What was it like to get to the point where they could speak freely in front of you?

Yeah, people always ask, “How did you get access to make this film?” And yes, negotiating access with the authorities in Qatar and the company was a huge hurdle, but then of course once you’re there and you’re shooting, there’s the access that you need to negotiate with your characters and at first, the workers weren’t so sure about us. You know, what are these guys doing in a labor camp with a camera? That’s not normal. They were skeptical because they thought we could be spies from the company and at the very beginning of shooting, we had a minder from the company who would follow us around the camps, which is very common around the world doing this work, but certainly in Qatar, so we had to bide our time.

Instead of talking about any of the deep themes that we wanted to explore in the film, it forced us just to talk about everyday stuff like soccer and we ended up bonding through that. And again, this perhaps goes to your original question that this was different than maybe a hard news approach. You’re not going in, sticking a camera in somebody’s face and telling them, “Tell me your deepest, darkest secret” and then soon disappearing. Instead, we were just bonding over soccer and talking about our families back home and it took months to access the deeper themes in the film.

What’s it been like traveling with this film?

It’s been really interesting. From the get go, we weren’t sure we were making a feature film, so to have it come together now and to be able to take it to the world – we’ve now screened it on every continent except for Antarctica – has been amazing. The responses that we generally get are that people are surprised by how easy it is to access what they think is going a deep issue [which it is], but they’re able to access it through our characters in a way that’s very personal and relatable. People are also always surprised by the humor. But perhaps the magic of the sport is that it does have the ability to break down that barrier and unite people, and as you see in the film, it can divide people [too]. But it’s been great to have the voices [of our subjects] heard around the world – for them and for us as well.

“The Workers’ Cup” opens on June 8th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and New York at the Museum of the Moving Image.