Sundance Film Review: ‘The Workers Cup’

An inside look at Qatar's labor camps for the 2022 World Cup.

(English, Nepali, Malayalam, Twi, Ga, Hindi, Arabic dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6333084/

The curious union between a social-issues documentary and an inspirational sports doc produces an unusual offspring in “The Workers Cup.” First-time feature director Adam Sobel gained rather remarkable inside access to a handful of the thousands of laborers tasked with building Qatar’s facilities for the 2022 World Cup, and he follows them as they compete in a soccer tournament of their own. What emerges is a nuanced, if somewhat undernourished, portrait of the poorest inhabitants of the richest country in the world.

Conditions for the workers in Qatar — migrants from countries including India, Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, who make up some 60% of the nation’s population  have been the subject of international news coverage and a source of concern for years. But Sobel avoids the sensationalism of an exposé doc to focus in on the stories that bring the various men to the massive labor camps, and what keeps them there.

The reasons range from the hope of providing for their families to a lack of opportunities elsewhere, but without exception, the realities of what these men face can never match up with their dreams. They agree to strict contracts, often under false pretenses from recruiters in their home countries, which essentially sign their lives away. In return, they endure six days a week of backbreaking work for low pay, live in cramped quarters in a remote area, and are rarely allowed to leave for any private or social activity. As more than a few of the men explain, matter of factly, it’s modernized slavery.

And so, as a way of keeping their spirits up, FIFA and Qatar introduce the idea of a Workers Cup tournament, where teams from two dozen different construction companies square off for an annual trophy. It’s a welcome distraction for the men who join, and an opportunity for further bonding off the clock (while subtly reinforcing their commitment and sense of servitude to their employers), and Sobel walks the fine line of conveying the positives of competitive sport without neglecting the underlying injustices of the real reasons the men are there.

That conflict is exemplified best by Kenneth, a bright-eyed 21-year-old from Ghana, who was falsely promised by a recruiter that he’d have an opportunity to join a soccer club once he arrived in Qatar, and still believes he’ll find a way out of the labor camps through his skills on the field. He sees the Workers Cup as a chance to realize his dreams, but the futility hits home in a handful of heartbreaking scenes.

Sobel connects with several memorable characters, including Paul, a Kenyan man frustrated by not being able to interact with the opposite sex; Padam, a Nepali man struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship with his wife; Samuel, the team’s goalkeeper, who lied to his family about why he left for Qatar (claiming it was just to play soccer and not to work); and Umesh, an Indian father of two children named after Manchester United players, who dreams of building his own home.

Indeed, “The Workers Cup” may resonate most strongly among the world’s soccer fans, especially those willing to take a look at the price these men pay to feed other people’s passions. Without casting blame or stirring up resentments, Sobel simply gives the audience characters to connect with. What happens next is up to the viewer.

The polished visual presentation is in keeping with the film’s sophisticated point of view  action on the soccer field is appropriately visceral, while images off the field are captured with an understated elegance that lingers in the mind. Prolific doc composer Nathan Halpern’s evocative score is another big plus.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Workers Cup'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2017. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) Producers: Rosie Garthwaite, Ramzy Haddad. Executive producers: Dennis Paul, Paul Miller. (International sales: Autlook Film Sales, Austria.)

Crew: Director: Adam Sobel. Camera (color, HD): Nazim Aggoune, Joe Saade. Editors: Lauren Wellbrock, Anne Jünemann, Sobel. Music: Nathan Halpern.

With: (English, Nepali, Malayalam, Twi, Ga, Hindi, Arabic dialogue)

More Film

  • Promise at Dawn Calcoa

    Colcoa French Film Festival Moves to the Fall with Revamped Formula

    Colcoa, the Los Angeles-based French film festival, will be hosting its 23rd edition in September, right before the start of the Awards season. Created by the Franco-American Cultural Fund, Colcoa will also be showcasing a more contained lineup focused on film and TV at the Directors Guild of America’s newly-renovated venue. The festival was previously [...]

  • Bruce Springsteen FYSEE Opening Night with

    Bruce Springsteen-Codirected 'Western Stars' Film Will Premiere in Toronto

    “Western Stars,” the film that Bruce Springsteen has made to accompany his recent album of the same name, will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was announced Tuesday. The feature is being listed as a co-directing project between Springsteen and his longtime filmic collaborator, Thom Zimny, who just picked up [...]

  • Sylvester Stallone and Braden Aftergood Balboa

    Sylvester Stallone's Production Company Wants to Be the Blumhouse of Action Films

    “I don’t believe Sylvester Stallone carries around a wallet,” says Braden Aftergood, the executive in charge of scripted development at the movie star’s content company Balboa Prods. It’s not that Sly, as he’s known to friends and fans alike, is trying to duck out on a dinner bill. He never seems to have his license [...]

  • Toronto Film Festival Lineup

    Toronto Film Festival: 'Joker,' 'Ford v Ferrari,' 'Hustlers' Among Big Premieres

    This year’s Toronto Film Festival will feature super-villain origin stories, splashy literary adaptations, and Tom Hanks as the most beloved performer in children’s television. The Canadian celebration of all things movies unveiled its 2019 lineup on Tuesday, and it appears to be an eclectic mixture of glossy awards bait, auteur-driven indies, and populist crowd-pleasers. It’s [...]

  • Sylvester Stallone Variety Cover story

    Sylvester Stallone Feels Robbed of an Ownership Stake in 'Rocky': 'I Was Furious'

    Sylvester Stallone shares an uncanny, symbiotic connection with Rocky, the underdog boxer character he created four decades ago — a kindred spirit who served as his creative muse in spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises. In his long career Stallone also played another memorable screen role — John Rambo — but Rocky was [...]

  • Beware of Children

    First Trailer Released for Venice Days Entry 'Beware of Children' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the first trailer for Dag Johan Haugeruds’ politically and socially charged drama “Beware of Children,” which premieres as part of the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days section. The pic, which is being sold at Venice by Picture Tree Intl., features the dramatic aftermath of a tragic incident in [...]

  • The Tower animated film about Palestinians

    ‘The Tower’ Animation Wins Japan's Skip City Festival

    “The Tower,” Mats Grorud’s animation about the plight of the Palestinians, as viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in Beirut, won the grand prize in the international competition at the 16th edition of Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. The film also scooped the section’s audience award. The Skip City festival, which launched in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content