Captains of Zaatari review – football-mad Syrian refugee kids yearn for escape

Ali El Arabi keeps his teenage subjects up close in this wonderfully empathetic film that humanises displaced people

The opening of Ali El Arabi’s documentary is achingly evocative in its quotidian simplicity. Under the last light of the day, a football is kicked into the air. As the camera follows the spinning ball, the comforting ordinariness is ruptured by the sight of barbed wires and housing barracks. Here is a slice of life in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the world’s largest for Syrian refugees, and a story that follows the friendship of football-mad Fawzi and Mahmoud from their teenage years to early adulthood.

With tender compassion, the film offers gently nuanced insight into the lives of Syrian refugees. It is peppered with endearing conversations between the teenaged boys, who talk of not only romantic crushes but also their dreams of becoming professional athletes. Captains of Zaatari is also attentive to private heartbreak, when Fawzi’s hopes of being chosen to travel with Mahmoud and other Syrian youths to Qatar for a football tournament are in the balance. Typical adolescent worries and the larger concerns of refugees – such as lack of proper healthcare and political disenfranchisement – are treated with equal poignancy and care.

In contrast to a media landscape that tends to flatten the refugee experience into faceless statistics and sensationalised photographs, Captains of Zaatari uses plenty of closeups to lend the young men a palpable sense of agency; and while the colour palette is at times too saturated, and the score can get overly sentimental, this remains an wonderfully empathetic film that moves with its subjects rather than gawking at their plight from a distance. As Mahmoud eloquently puts it during a press conference at the tournament: “All a refugee needs is an opportunity, not your pity.”

  • Captains of Zaatari is released on 6 December on Dogwoof On Demand.