REVIEW: ‘Captains of Za’atari’ – Optimism in a Dismal World

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Captains of Za'atari - But Why Tho

Captains of Za’atari is a documentary film by Ali El Arabi and production company Ambient Light that follows two Syrian refugees from the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, Fawzi Qatleesh and Mahmoud Dagher, as they fight for their dream of becoming professional soccer players. It’s a film with persistently hopeful subjects surrounded by absolutely dismal circumstances.

There are few global unifiers where nearly no matter where you live, you might grow up playing it, and soccer is one of them. For the over 5.6 million Syrian refugees currently and longstandingly displaced from their homes by civil war, Captains of Za’atari is foremost a glimpse into their devastating circumstances. More so perhaps than its focus on soccer, its focus is on the derelict buildings, trek to receive a cellphone signal, and an impossible outlook on work and healthcare conditions or opportunities. The soccer tournament the boys play in and the games that take place before and after almost seem like an afterthought as compared to the focus on the conditions they live in and under.

Which isn’t to say that soccer isn’t at the center of their story. Captain Za’atari is ultimately about the trials and triumphs of its main characters as they play soccer under the worst of conditions and fight for their dream of becoming professionals one day. Their coaches aren’t particularly nice. Their field is made of rocks and sand. And Fawzi is nearly disallowed from playing at all for being too old. But when they do reach Qatar and, for, perhaps the first time, stay in a fancy hotel with a pool and pristine fields to play on, it almost seems like a dream. The very sharp and jarring cutting of the soccer games doesn’t especially help that feeling, but it’s also a good fit. Because the big tournament isn’t where the film even ends, they go back to the camp and return to a life as refugees with no true sense of whether their efforts might ever pay off.

It’s in this way that the whole film is tragically poetic. It fools you into thinking it’s about soccer, the same way its subjects are fixated on the sport and their sense that it’s the one and only chance they might have to break from of their current lives. But really, it’s about the conditions themselves. Fawzi and Mahmoud make absolutely inspiring and impressive speeches to the media after their tournament that completely stun the reporters and bring utter pride to their friends and families back home. But as the reporters in the room applaud their words and the scene shifts back to their return home and life thereafter, you get the feeling that their time in Qatar was more of a spectacle to make FIFA, or the U.N., or whomever else organized it feel like they played a part and ticked off a box rather than it actually helping the players, their families, their communities, or their country in any material or substantive way.

At first, this upset me about the film. I wanted to see soccer. But as I sat with it afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about this sharp and painful reality and the absolute fact that in short time, I will have completely forgotten about these boys and their plight, too, just like everyone else. And for me, that’s what makes it a powerful documentary in the end, despite long and uninteresting scenes designed to simply set you in that awful mood.

Captains of Za’atari is not the documentary you think it is necessarily, but its true message is perhaps more stirring and important than the soccer of it all ever was.

Captains of Za’atari will be streaming on-demand and available in select theaters on November 19th.

Captains of Za'atari
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10


Captains of Za’atari is not the documentary you think it is necessarily, but its true message is perhaps more stirring and important than the soccer of it all ever was.

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