Ali El-Arabi’s Captains of Za’atari is a story of friendship and soccer between two Syrian refugees in Jordan.
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After premiering in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance in January, Ali El-Arabi’s Captains of Za’atari has already made its way around the festival circuit, landing at the San Francisco International Film Festival before stopping at Visions du Réel and HotDocs. Ali El Arabi follows two football-obsessed friends, Fawzi and Mahmoud, both Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s Za’atari camp. Both of them dream of being professional football players, spending their days practicing and playing rather than studying, as their parents would prefer. When they are both scouted to join Qatar’s academy for young hopeful footballers, they get their first glimpse at a world outside the camp.
The Hoops Dream-esque premise of Captains of Za’atari proves a bit of a MacGuffin, as El-Arabi is more interested in the friendship between the boys and their hope for the future than this particular dream. El-Arabi dedicates the same care and attention to calls home to their parents to check on them as to discussions of each of the boys’ budding romances as to time on the field. Their time in Qatar is more about broadening their horizons so that they can form more realistic and achievable dreams, when absolutely everything had previously seemed out of reach within the confines of the refugee camp.
Mahmoud Bashir’s handheld cinematography is equally adept at capturing faces, wide landscapes, and moving images of the boys’ friendship. Perhaps even more so than the story, the draw of Captains of Za’atari is the ability to go inside the refugee camp, to see day-to-day life, all captured by Bashir in gorgeous colours and compositions.
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