Sundance 2017: On Finding “Rocky” in Qatar with “The Workers Cup”

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Directed by: Adam Sobel
Produced by: Rosie Garthwaite, Ramzy Haddad
Executive Produced by: Dennis Paul, Paul Miller, Anonymous
Edited by: Lauren Wellbrock, Anne Jünemann, Adam Sobel
Cinematography by: Nazim Aggoune, Joe Saade
Music by: Nathan Halpern
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

*****

”The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

-Bart Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind”

*****

On the luxurious Eastern coast of the nation of Qatar is Doha, a paradisiacal metropolis known both for the extraordinary wealth of its residents and the stark contrast of lifestyles between the financial classes in the city. Long shielded (or perhaps simply exempted) from the penetrating glare of Western newsmedia, the richest country on Earth has chosen to engage the attention of the planet by hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Any mystery as to what is required in terms of people and money to build, sustain, and live in this modern oasis is soon to be the subject of intense international scrutiny. But before that can happen, the filmmakers of The Workers Cup – stalwarts of nonfiction filmmaking and television banded behind a debut director – decided to get a five-year-early headstart.

Director Adam Sobel chooses as his subject the building of the World Cup stadium, a process that requires a growing 1.6 million workers from Africa, Asia, and Europe. These poor, itinerant migrants, most of them forced into low-safety, high-energy construction jobs, find themselves stuffed into labor camps by the cutthroat contractors who hired them. To appease their employees (and, importantly, to show shareholders where their investments are going), the companies stage a 24-team football tournament of their own with cash prizes for the winners. In a move of infinite wisdom, Sobel and his cinematographers, Nazim Aggoune and Joe Saade, stay with one group in particular, the Ghanain, Kenyan, Indian, and Nepalese team members of GCC. Their rise from “modern slaves,” as one disgruntled employee calls them, to potential victors in the so-called “Workers Cup” becomes a sort of nonfiction Rocky as thematically layered as it is classically satisfying.

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Lauren Wellbrock, Anne Jünemann, and Sobel, three splendid editors, somehow prevent this fable-film from reaching one of two poles: it is neither a social-issue tragedy nor an underdog-loving puff piece; we are not watching Qatari Blackfish or ميدان الأحلام. Their goal seems instead to have been to evoke big questions about this microcosm of globalized relationships, the dynamics of which are infinitely complex. Consider Kenneth, an ambitious 21-year-old whose malicious recruiting agent in Ghana tricked him into his current job. Then there are Padam, whose Nepalese wife is prohibited by law from living with him in Doha; and Sebastian, the GCC manager whose enthusiasm rises and dips drastically between tournament games. Among these characters and other teammates is a web of underlying stereotypes involving sexuality, finance, class, religion, corruption, and of course, who is best at sports.

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The editors play a brilliant sort of “issues whack-a-mole” here, springing one social theme up for mere moments – like, for instance, when latent racism emerges during a stressful round of penalty kicks – as if to say, “Even the whole film would not be enough.” This is correct, and in their hands, the piecemeal approach to such concerns never feels scattered or distracted. Rather, it enables the competition to become the priority for the viewer as well as its participants. In fact, the filmmakers never show the GCC team in the thick of hard labor. We learn early in the film that for these workers, a chance to practice is an opportunity to gain back some basic personal pride (and perhaps earn much-needed extra money, to boot.) After all, this is a true-blue soccer movie; as Sobel himself states, it “employs the genre’s narrative conventions that have proven so durable over time.”

In the time since its World Premiere as the Day One selection of the Sundance Film Festival, the question has remained as to what makes this potentially hokey sports documentary so radiant with tactile warmth and intelligence. In tandem with its exemplary editing, Aggoune and Saade’s cinematography never feels impatient or starved for footage, which so often kills the quality of Sundance’s World Documentary films. They refuse to shoot team practice like a slog in absurd heat, which might have squashed our feelings of excitement for the win with concern for the players’ safety. Even the interviews from within the Qatari labor camps, some of which had to be captured in secret for fear of national reprisals, give Kenneth and Padam and Paul enough literal space to speak to the camera. We feel that Sobel and his translators are really talking with these men, rather than simply documenting their experiences (the film is dedicated to the GCC team.) Through some genuine alchemy of photography, editing, sharp direction, and Nathan Halpern’s handsome, murmuring score, we wind up cheering for the men because of their difficult circumstances, not in spite of them.

For those of us who recognize in Rocky the template for a film of immense artistic quality with a gooey athletic center, The Workers Cup adds to that mix the element of hard-to-process real events. I’d use the word “unbelievable” to describe the story, but you would never believe that. Still, there is perhaps no more delicious brew in the world of visual entertainment, and undoubtedly Sobel’s team and their film could find their way into Morgan Spurlock-level popularity with the right distribution plan. Should you have any power to release and market this film, I advise you to exercise that power.

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One response to “Sundance 2017: On Finding “Rocky” in Qatar with “The Workers Cup”

  1. Pingback: Sundance 2017: Getting “TRUMPED” Makes for Electrifying Cinema | CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism·

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