Who doesn’t like a good underdog story? Especially in the sports-film genre, the adrenaline and emotional rush of seeing a character go through all the tumultuous obstacles of life can be incredibly satisfying. There’s a reason why Hollywood is continuing to produce these sorts of films. They’re not only accessible, but they’re quite emotionally gratifying in all the best ways imaginable. Sure, there’s some stinkers and the occasional box office flop, but the underlying concept is that there’s a universality factor in the production of these underdog films. And what better way to communicate this trend with a film that highlights a very present underdog story in real-time. A late addition in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Captains of Zaatari reaches the same emotional heights of any other satisfying sports flick even with the setback of some major presentation issues. 

Captains of Zaatari takes place in a refugee centre, where hours and days merge in a turbulent environment of intricate detail. As the youth from the camp continuously study for a better future, some of the teens are also attempting to make their own dreams a reality. For Fawzi and Mahmoud, they aspire to become professional football players. In seemingly perfect notice with the documentary’s own crew correlating their shooting schedule with the live-events at hand, the two boys garner the opportunity to join Aspire Academy, where they’re set to compete in the Alkass International Cup. The film is an inspiring document of their journey, where the film primarily focuses on their extensive training and transition from the Zaatari refugee camp to the world renowned stadium. 

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While it may contain an abundance of harrowing subject matter, Ali El Arabi’s directorial debut unfortunately suffers from a common case of over-stylisation and staging. Where even the most ordinary of conversations are shot with multiple cameras and flashy angles, the film gradually becomes distracting. To a justifiable degree, the amount of footage taken is borderline intrusive when taking into account the personal events of both Fawzi and Mahmoud’s developing career paths. Even with the visually stunning and expressive opening montage, the film automatically sets an artificial tone that is heavily prevalent throughout the short-lived runtime. 

Audiences are bound to seek some enjoyment from Captains of Zaatari. The film is a passionate reflection on the urgency for opportunities for refugee youth, and how organisations such as Aspire Academy are making a gradual difference in the daily lives of our current developing generation. Presentation gripes aside, there’s something truly admirable about the importance of a film such as Captains of Zaatari. Ali El Arabi’s film is a project braced with hope, posterity, and the search for one’s own individuality. Sometimes, a simple tale as old as time is all you need for an effective piece of familiar documentary filmmaking. 

Dir: Ali El Arabi

DOP: Mahmoud Bashir

Country: Egypt

Year: 2021

Runtime: 73 minutes

Captains of Zaatari premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition category. The film will screen again virtually on February 2nd. Captains of Zaatari is also seeking international distribution.

A still from Captains of Zaatari by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

By David Cuevas

David Cuevas is a writer, reporter, and the official festivals editor (US/Canada) for FilmHounds Magazine. In his spare time, you can find him watching a bunch of movies while contemplating on his own existence.

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