Hope is in the DNA of competitive sports. Comes with it a shot at victory, a rush of optimism for what might follow. The sensation only multiplies through unity — not just with one’s team, but also fans cheering on. Through his profoundly humanistic nonfiction feature debut “Captains of Zaatari,” a moving tale of two Syrian teenagers with a deep love for soccer, filmmaker Ali El Arabi captures what that kind of hope can mean to those with bleakly limited options. He does so with stunning cinematic artistry and precision, honoring the lives he portrays with authenticity and respect.
In the oblique footsteps of Jafar Panahi’s masterful “Offsite” and Adam Sobel’s Sundance-hailing documentary “The Workers Cup,” El Arabi demonstrates an acute understanding of the buoyancy that surrounds soccer, the kind of promise it symbolizes to many around the globe, as well as the set of intricate skills required by the game. Through his razor-sharp technical and emotional perspective, he follows Fawzi and Mahmoud around on the dirt and concrete grounds of Jordan’s Zaatari, the world’s largest refugee camp for Syrians.
These best friends train hard, kick a ball between goalposts and over ropes of hanging laundry — sometimes barefoot, often amid marmalade rays of light and dancing shadows — dreaming of their big break as part of the Syrian Dream Team. The filmmaker unearths a truthful sense of rhythm through dynamic football scenes that makes the viewer forget about the teenagers’ circumstances briefly, perhaps visually mirroring Fawzi and Mahmoud’s way of experiencing a training session or a match. During a game, the world is their oyster, an innocent feeling cinematographer Mahmoud Bashir’s swift camera seizes with immersive, golden-hued energy.
In reality, genuine prospects are limited for the boys despite the spirit of possibility in the air. On the one hand, they are typical teenagers: They gush, commiserate and tease each other about romantic interests during late-night chats, worry about the future and share moments of youthful bonding away from grown-up eyes. But on the other, their finite options cause discernible worry for the two.
Residing on the camp since the age of 13 (he is 16 when we meet him), Mahmoud lives with his supportive parents and three siblings, trying to excel in both his studies and soccer as a one-way ticket out of Zaatari. The captain of the camp’s team, the no-nonsense and gifted Fawzi also lives with his family, but with a sadly absent father who was sent to a different camp upon his arrest some time ago. A school dropout, Fawzi puts even greater emphasis on soccer as an investment towards a better, more autonomous future.
Opportunity comes knocking when a famed Qatari sports academy makes an appearance in the camp to handpick promising soccer players for a tournament in Doha. Mahmoud makes the cut, but not Fawzi, due to some obscure age-limit rule. When the coaches unexpectedly decide to override the regulation and fly Fawzi out to the same camp, the exuberance of the duo’s reunion marks one of the most joyous moments of El Arabi’s film.
The days that follow are similarly magical for the pair. There are luxurious hotel rooms, swanky sports facilities and an array of star players the youngsters can’t believe they’re among — the likes of the smooth winger Ribéry, famed midfielder Xavi and legendary striker Trezeguet, who teases a young, adorably know-it-all Cristiano Ronaldo fan. There are awestruck side conversations among the boys about the wealthy footballer Lewandowski. “He can buy all of Syria,” one suggests, pointing at him. Wallah? Wallah!
A war journalist with extensive work in the Middle East, El Arabi apparently met his main subjects in 2013 while he was in Zaatari filming something else. Impressed with Fawzi and Mahmoud’s infectious curiosity, he decided to spend several years there, building trust with the teens as well as their community to grasp the challenges they have been facing. Bringing an investigative inquisitiveness to his film via thoughtful framing that represents one’s social and emotional status, El Arabi compassionately lays bare a hunger for opportunity among the people he depicts, while managing to be a fly on the wall throughout the narrative.
The yearning for a fair shot is most palpable when Fawzi and Mahmoud play the most important game of their lives out of Doha, with their hopeful families watching in a narrow room out at the camp. Menna El Shishini’s editing elevates this tense sequence to breathtaking heights, as cuts between the match and those watching at home turn the game to a high-stakes nail-biter and gradually, a tear-jerker. Even more touching is the press conference right after, where Fawzi and Mahmoud emphasize that all they need is a chance, not pity — a privilege that refugee kids aren’t offered. Shortly after, El Arabi fast-forwards the story to years later, when the tight-knit duo are back in Zaatari, still facing a future of unknowns.
A coming-of-age tale, an underdog story and an urgent humanitarian statement rolled into one, “Captains of Zaatari” claims a special place among all the recent documentaries about the Syrian crisis, with a melancholic final shot to soothe the soul. Free of talking-head interviews, archival footage and the kind of statistics that can make some docs feel like homework, El Arabi’s debut is ultimately rousing through its fluid, casual specificity, tracing a beautiful friendship that pledges to defy the odds.