For his directing debut, Ali El Arabi wanted to make sure all types of audiences were engaged by his documentary on two Syrian refugees with dreams of playing professional soccer.
“I wanted the movie to be appealing to the people who don’t like documentaries,” El Arabi tells Gold Derby through an interpreter in a new interview from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “When it comes to dry documentaries, status-quo kind of thing — I didn’t want that. I wanted to give more life to that movie. It appeals to both, documentary loves and feature lovers.”
Set to compete in the World Cinema Documentary competition at Sundance, “Captains of Zaatari” follows two teenagers, Fawzi and Mahmoud, as they play soccer and imagine a life outside the Zaatari refugee camp in Northern Jordan, the largest Syrian refugee camp in the world.
“These boys stood out in the crowd,” El Arabi says. He first encountered them in 2013 on a separate reporting assignment. “They were always hovering around me, asking me questions, and they kept asking about how life is like outside the fence of the camp,” he says.
To gain their trust for what would ultimately become an intimate examination of their lives, El Arabi played soccer with them and turned the camera over to the two boys. “We created rapport and identification between ourselves,” he says.
Ultimately, El Arabi hopes audiences will connect with the universal dreams of its subjects. “With refugees, the first thing that comes into your head is you are envisioning people who are in need and are asking for assistance,” he says. “However, Mamoud and Fawzi, they were the opposite. They were strong, character-wise, they had their own dreams and aspirations and they had something within them that compelled me to record their lives.”
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