Captains Of Za’atari

Director: Ali El Arabi
Category: World Documentary Competition

In terms of humanitarian filmmaking, the idea is half the battle won. The logline is irresistible. Captains of Za’atari follows two teen-aged friends, Mahmoud and Fawzi, who live in the Jordan refugee camp of Za’atari with their families after fleeing war-torn Syria. The two young refugees dream of becoming professional soccer players – football is their escape from the nowhere-ness of the camp. Their opportunity arrives when a Qatari sports academy visits the camp in the hope of assembling a ‘Syrian Dreams’ U-17 team. Some of these matches might even have a live telecast. Capitalism is looking for a sellable story, and Za’atari fits the profile. 

The 73-minute Captains of Za’atari was reportedly shot over 6 years. Yet, the film is more of a brisk docudrama than a lived-in documentary. The acute compression of time, combined with the semi-staging of certain interactions and scenes, makes for a strange viewing experience. The first time a ‘character’ addresses the camera is in the 27th minute of the film; in a rare moment of vulnerability, tears are shed and brutal circumstances come to light. Up until then, the kids and the adults impart information to one another and behave like the cameras don’t exist, which by extension suggests that they are visibly aware of the cameras: in tiny homes, on the football field, in meeting rooms and in buses and airplanes. 

The acute compression of time, combined with the semi-staging of certain interactions and scenes, makes for a strange viewing experience

This is no crime, but it often seems like the makers have a set narrative style in their heads – they aggressively shape the story rather than letting the story shape the film. As a result, it veers more towards the popcorn conventionalism of an underdog sports drama rather than the meditative observationalism of human strife. The dressing room speeches, the tournament progression, the scene of refugees touching real football turf (as opposed to their stony camp pitch) for the first time, the cutaways of emotional faces back ‘home’ – despite the authenticity of their setting, it’s all pre-designed and packaged to manipulate the viewer’s attention. In journalistic parlance, Captains of Za’atari is the kind of heavily edited non-fiction cover story whose cultural access is far more attractive than the technicalities of its writing.

Even though the docudrama is about two kids, it’s the older one – Fawzi – who is more of the protagonist. Fawzi ages a bit during filming, but we never really feel the fluidity of his evolution. His arc is structured in the language of physical events rather than psychological continuity. His conversations with Mahmoud on cold nights, his journey to meet his imprisoned father, his last-minute selection for the International Cup, his performance – one can’t help but sense that Fawzi knows what he’s supposed to represent. He knows that if he’s the subject of cinematic attention, he has to look and sound special. His is a remarkable presence, filled with self-awareness and strength, but it’s intermittently obvious that the film doesn’t trust his natural personality to tell a story. 

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There is plenty of potential for quiet transitions, for perceptive nature-building, but the impassioned makers are too eager to turn him into a statement. A beacon. An advertisement of how identity is more of a spiritual trait than a geographical construct. Consequently, we end up spending more time with his body than his soul. I like that, eventually, Fawzi’s fate defies the exaggerated tone of the film. His is no fairytale. But a small step forward, away from the rubble of the past, is in itself a fairytale amidst the cautionary tales of war. Not all barren pitches magically grow grass. Rest assured that for those like Fawzi, grass is always greener – no matter which side it’s on. The camera may put on 10 pounds, but it’s the gaze that can defy gravity.

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