Sundance 2021 Interview: Ali El Arabi on How Soccer Opened Up Greater Goals in the Remarkable Refugee Story “Captains of Zaatari”

There’s an immediate sense of how soccer has the ability to take people places in “Captains of Zaatari” in how Ali El Arabi films it, the camera following the ball low to the ground as if it’s right next to all the feet trying control it and the ground slipping beneath like it’s limitless. For Mahmoud and Fawzi, the young men that El Arabi followed for the better part of the decade, the soccer field is a refuge inside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan that allows an escape from a place surrounded by fences, intended for their protection after fleeing Syria yet still preventing any semblance of a normal life, and their gift for the sport potentially offers them an actual way out when the most talented players can move onto the Aspire Academy where they are groomed for a professional career.

It’s remarkable enough that El Arabi was able to access the Zaatari camp over the course of so many years to see such a story through, but as “Captains of Zaatari” wears on, even more extraordinary in how he is able to access the emotional journey of Mahmoud and Fawzi through their teenage years, under the most intense pressure imaginable when it feels like they are playing for their lives and that of their families. Filmed unobtrusively in some of the most seemingly impossible of spaces to get a camera inside, the film not only offers a tender portrait of the boys accepting responsibilities that shouldn’t be asked of them at any age, let alone in their youth, but also intrigues as a story that can resonate around the world when sports are seen as one of the few ways one can rise in a society of entrenched power due to inherited wealth or class, allowing one to cheer on Mahmoud and Fawzi as they rise up in a world so stacked against them on the undeniable strength of their abilities, yet leaving room to wonder why it remains one of the only ays to break through.

On the eve of the film’s premiere at Sundance, El Arabi, with the help of a translator, spoke about creating such an indelible portrait of his subjects and the personal experience that guided him to tell their story so richly, as well as the many challenges of filming inside of a refugee camp and being excited for the one ahead in turning more attention to improving the lives of refugees ready to take their next steps in life.

You were there for other reasons, what got you interested in filming with these two boys?

People used to look at refugees as statistics and figures, and that’s all. But I wanted to tell a story about human beings, especially since I’ve been through many refugee camps. I know these are people that need more than food, water and shelter. They need to be a part of the world. I met Mahmoud and Fawzi at Al Za’atari Camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2013 and when I met these two boys, I found out that they have a very strong bond of friendship. They had, and still have, an unbelievable belief in their dream to make it come true, especially in a place that’s void of any potential [for a career]. Also, these two boys’ [story] resonated with me because when I was their age, I also lived in a place that was also not very promising and void of opportunity, so I said, “Hey, with this beautiful friendship, I need to create something with these two boys. I’m sure that they have a story to tell.” I expected at the beginning [of filming] to [stay with them for] five full years with the object of documenting their journey from adolescence to young man hood, to see how they are going to grow up, and I would track their dream.

There were a number of restrictions of filming in the refugee camp obviously, but you capture such intimacy between them – I couldn’t help but think you had to scope out certain spots like the area near the fence they meet late at night to look at their phones to get those moments. Was it a process finding those places?

It was really very difficult to shoot inside the camp with all the restrictions. However, I tried hard with my team to build good relations with the refugee camp’s administration and tried to build rapport with them and I even did a lot of things for them for free, just to gain their trust and be there, be really there. It took me two years to do that. And when everything became settled, the administration of the camp changed, so I had to start all over again. [laughs] It was very challenging, but worth it.

It’s such a beautiful film and I imagine you couldn’t bring too much equipment in. Was it difficult to get the look for this film you wanted?

The need is the mother of all inventions. I had to use small cameras without accessories and I resorted to natural light – sun, moon and candles, so I could get this natural atmosphere, to give authenticity and reality to the scenes that I am shooting. We used more than five cameras and everybody could use the camera — even the sound engineer. We taught him how to use the camera and the cameraman could operate the sound machine, so all the hands were busy doing the job to overcome any restrictions. And we had a cameraman in the crew that could not speak or hear, so he taught all of us how to read the lips. That helped us to communicate with each other without disturbing the reality of the scene that was going on, so we were in cohesion. Everybody was doing everything.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but there is a point where the boys’ paths diverge and you have to be filming in two separate locations simultaneously. Was it a logistical challenge to coordinate those kinds of shoots?

It’s super hard. After some time working, we knew that there will be live matches and how to get the reactions of the [families] watching the players play, so I had to resort to my assistant and taught her real fast, because we only knew one day prior that there will be live matches. I used my good relationship with the boys and my abilities [from being in all positions such as] producer and line producer and director to employ all the information and tools that I have to serve the divergent paths of the two Dreamers.

The film is undoubtedly inspirational, but at the same time, provocative when you show how sports not only offers opportunity for these boys, but puts so much pressure on them when it was seen as the only way out. Was it important to show what a difficult position they’re in in that regard?

It’s true, it is inspirational and provocative in the sense that refugee laws and regulations are not unified and they do not encompass or [understand] the potential of the refugees and how they can be very beneficial to the world. In addition, when it comes to soccer, there are no rules for the refugees to become professionals. They have to have another nationality to become professionals. [What’s also interesting] is the training hours of the two boys did not exceed 70 hours whereas the professional footballers’ training hours, they exceed hundreds and hundreds of training hours, so the real treasure in this journey of the two boys is the improvement and growth of these two refugees, but we are trying to provoke the international community to come up with laws that could make use of the refugees’ potential.

After spending seven years making this, what’s it like to reach the finish line?

Reaching the end line is not an end line, it’s a step forward. It’s a beginning line for another journey. However, the feeling that I have right now is a mixture between happiness and fear. Happiness because I’m at Sundance. My movie is being featured through a wonderful, giant platform and that venue is a message of respect for me, for my crew and the filmmakers of our part of the world and the industry in the Arab world. And I am happy that the message that I’m trying to get [across] is getting through that this is not just a movie. It is something that we are [using] as a tool to change the perspective towards the refugees. There will be nonprofit features of the movie in many refugee camps in the Arab League in different embassies to put the cause at the table of each and everyone who could make a decision to make these things happen. And while I’m very thrilled, [I’m also] afraid that I may have not satisfied the boys [in captured their] dream the way they wanted it to be, afraid that I wanted more [for them] and I wonder if it’s going to happen. I’m afraid that I’m the one that really made use of the film, and I want the film to benefit the boys and to benefit everyone. [I just hope] that the film touches their lives.

“Captains of Al Zaatari” will screen once more at the Sundance Film Festival for a 48-hour window starting on February 1st at 4 am MT.