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

Sundance Film Fest ’17 Review: “The Workers Cup” Constructs a Captivating Portrait of Workers Rights Abuses in Qatar

“From this view, Qatar is very beautiful,” Kenneth, one of the subjects of “The Workers Cup,” says as he looks out from a window in one of the ornate buildings that either he or someone like him probably built. In a country where gleaming skyscrapers are rising by the day with 21st century design that looks as if it emanated straight out of “The Jetsons” — or perhaps more accurately, the capitol of Panem in “The Hunger Games” — it is decidedly more difficult to see any such beauty looking back at Kenneth, a migrant worker from Ghana who came to Qatar to help prepare the emirate for the 2022 World Cup and upon arrival (under false pretenses), discovered an attitude towards labor that might’ve been considered harsh in medieval times.

With a scenario that one might imagine Paul Verhoeven making a wickedly subversive satire out of, if not a more sober treatment by the likes of Ken Loach, first-time director Adam Sobel finds a middle ground between the two in capturing life for the thousands who live in the labor camps in the oil-rich peninsula where the desert remains vast and dry, but as someone describes in the film, “the money flows like a river.” Still, the tributary never quite trickles down to the migrants who come from all corners of the world, most sending what little money they make back to their impoverished homeland with plans to return themselves until they learn of Qatar’s strict policies towards foreign workers that make it virtually impossible to leave.

Shot in bright, vivid colors with a stoic, occasionally soaring score from Nathan Halpern, the film illuminates the great dignity in the group of men working for the Gulf Contracting Company that Sobel brings before his lens, out of the 7500-plus men who toil away seven days a week to construct the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. But the circumstances are almost too ridiculous to be true as the men are asked to compete from their various contracting firms to play in The Workers Cup, essentially testing out the soccer fields they’ve worked on. For the men, many of whom are quite good at the game, it’s a respite from the drudgery of hard labor, but in playing, they are inadvertently contributing to their own further exploitation since positive coverage of the games are used in recruitment materials after the fact to lure others to come to the country to work, depicting a fun and fancy free culture in Qatar that simply doesn’t exist.

A scene from Adam Sobel's "Workers Cup"Maybe officials in Qatar thought Sobel might provide some more good publicity, which seems like the only possible explanation for how the filmmaker got such remarkably unfettered access to the workers. Yet while he is clearly a shrewd fox in the hen house, he is careful to strike a measured tone. No one is directly pointed to as a villain in “The Workers Cup,” though tours of construction sites and the camps are marked periodically by tastefully presented facts about the ungodly amount of hours worked by the migrants and other disturbing data about their working conditions and the workers’ resignation in speaking about their plight either in sit-down interviews or with each other is far more unsettling as it suggests they’ve lost all hope of a better life than this. The film is structured around the GCC squad playing their way through the Workers Cup, giving the film a natural arc as they move up in the tournament, but for as dynamically as the games are shot, it grows poignant how all the excitement has been sucked out of them with the overriding knowledge that no matter the outcome the players have lost.

In general, the clean and sharp simplicity with which Sobel presents such an insidious situation is what gives “The Workers Cup” much of its considerable power, disarming audiences with its personable subjects and casual displays of the daily indignities they face. Slowly but surely, you realize you might’ve had it all wrong in observing that early moment with Kenneth – that indeed the beauty was within, seeing how someone can respond to dehumanizing conditions with grace and unremitting resolve, and that instead it’s the outside world that has imposed this life upon him that needs repair. Time and again, “The Workers Cup” gives new meaning to the images that it’s provided before, creating a captivating film to behold and one that hopefully will put a dent in having history repeat itself.

“The Worker’s Cup” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play five more times at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20th at 8:30 am at the Prospector Square Theater and 6 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room in Park City, January 23rd at 6 pm at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre, January 25th at 10 pm at the Redstone Cinema in Park City and January 27th at 3 pm at the Temple Theatre in Park City.