Sundance Review: Captains of Zaatari is heartfelt and inspiring

By Wilfred Okiche

While reporting as a journalist in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan circa 2013, Egyptian director Ali El Arabi came across the ordinary yet inspiring friendship of Fawzi and Mahmoud, two Syrian refugees bound by their love for football and hopes for a better life. Displaced from home - with Fawzi’s family living in two separate camps-, the boys only have football to cling to as the ticket out of the camp and to securing better lives for their respective families.

Fawzi and Mahmoud with their immediate challenges, bleak surroundings and sustained positive outlook on life make for fascinating subjects, and El Arabi films them with a lot of tenderness and love, making Captains of Zaatari one of the most joyous films to come out of Sundance this year where it played in the World Cinema Documentary category.

Football is El Arabi’s entry into the lives of these two young men and in scene after scene, the director outlines just how important the beautiful game is to them. Football is release from growing pains, from family challenges and a balm for the uncertain futures that stare them in the face as refugees.

In the tradition of recent sporting documentaries like Adam Sobel’s The Workers Cup and Marwa Zein’s Khartoum Offside, Captains of Zaatari uses the game of football to highlight larger societal concerns, in this case, the failings of refugee resettlement programs and how they impact on real lives.

El Arabi is not just interested in making an issue movie however. Captains of Zaatari is primarily a heartfelt and beautifully filmed study of friendships and the bonds that bring people together. Following the boys for a number of years as they mature from teenagers to young adults, it is obviously important to El Arabi that the humanity of the characters shine through.

The filmmaker’s intimate and observational gaze focuses on Fawzi and Mahmoud when they are just being boys teasing each other about girlfriends they meet on social media and debating the merits of getting a formal education. Their palpable love for each other gives the film a honest and emotional core that can only be captured by the most involved of filmmakers. No talking heads are involved in the film and El Arabi’s use of observation techniques and visual splendor plus a slender running time makes for a splendid watch.

Even if everything else goes wrong, they will always have football. And each other.

Captains of Zaatari at Sundance Film Festival 2021

Wilfred Okiche is one of the most influential critics working in the African culture space. He has mentored young film critics at Talents Durban, the training program of the Durban International Film Festival. He is a member of FIPRESCI and has participated in juries at the Berlinale and the Carthage film festival. He tweets from @drwill20