Key goals are scored in every division of “Sons of Sakhnin United,” an energetic, nicely balanced docu containing all the necessary elements for sports reportage with the added advantage of meatier issues attached. Inspired by the 2004 National Cup victory of Israel’s sole soccer team with an Arab majority, helmer Christopher Browne traces their subsequent up-and-down season until an edge-of-your-seat finale that couldn’t have been scripted better. A genuine crowdpleaser capable of satisfying broad auds, pic should have no problem opening in markets primed for docu exhibition.
Browne is blessed with all the right elements: an underdog team, sympathetic personalities and the hot potato that is the Middle East, all wrapped up in an easily understandable sports story. Located in Galilee, the Arab-Israeli town of Sakhnin didn’t even have a stadium, but it had a team, comprised of Arabs, Jews and foreigners practicing their kicks among the olive groves.
Residents speak of their fundamental identity confusion and the difficulties of being separate and unequal citizens as Arabs in Israel. Children and parents alike view soccer not merely as a pastime but as a way of bettering their lives, so when the home team won the National Cup, everyone had the sense that their newfound celebrity — including visits from political bigwigs — could be a bridge over troubled waters.
But B’nei Sakhnin’s national prominence did little to stem the vicious anti-Arab slogans hurled at them by rival supporters. Star player Abas Suan calmly rises above it all, but the combination of sudden adulation, with talk of a bright new day in Arab-Israeli relations and the realities of daily life put debilitating pressures on the team as a whole.
They began losing, one game after another, until it appeared they’d be sent down a division. Morale was low: Coach Eyal Lachman was fired and former Coach Momi Zafran was rehired, but the decline showed no signs of abating. With auds now fans as much as the locals in the stadium, the make-or-break final game had the kind of nail-biting climax all sports films, whether features or docus, pray for.
Aside from the generally exciting games themselves, the pic’s distinguishing characteristic is the way it handles Arab-Israeli tensions without polemics. During the season, Suan was picked as an alternate for the national team; when he scored a goal against Ireland, he temporarily became “King of Israel,” but as the docu makes clear, soccer can’t completely transcend attitudes that go much deeper than team loyalty.
Terrific editing helps Browne to beautifully control his rhythms, starting the ball rolling on the high of the National Cup (using general news footage), then slowing things down for a deeper look at the team’s position both in Sakhnin and Israel as a whole, and finishing it all off with the all-important final game. In between, he focuses on the gentle, self-effacing Suan, though even more time with this articulate man and his family would be welcome.
HD visuals are pro, losing nothing on the bigscreen.