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Captains of Zaatari: Skimming the Surface of Refugee Camps

Captains of Zaatari is a sympathetic portrait of Syrian refugees, but it leaves the thorniest details of its subject on the sidelines.

I don’t believe Captains of Zaatari ever gets better than its opening two minutes.  Bathed in golden sunrise, a ball hits the ground, and we hear a massive thud. This is the anchor point of the lives surrounding the ball, a group of boys and young men sprinting after it over the hills of the Za’atari Refugee Camp. The film’s gaze is romantic; playing football has turned the boys’ lives as refugees into something freer. No sooner has the audience been steeped in this glowing portrait than they are shoved out of it via smash cut to a gray sky, a motionless line of people, and a fenced-in enclosure. The once-unbound camera is still in this shot. Reality hits like a train.

Captains of Zaatari is a portrait of Mahmoud and Fawzi, two members of an amateur football team who look to a professional tournament as an opportunity to escape Za’atari. Director Ali El-Arabi’s laser focus on the two young men for the majority of his film naturally describes the difference between aspiration and reality, but, outside of the film’s introduction, that focus starts to leave out a rich wealth of details. Snapped up quickly by touring scouts, Mahmoud and Fawzi spend little of the film’s runtime in the refugee camp, so El-Arabi’s camera follows them. The conditions of Za’atari begin to feel like an afterthought. Where the film’s introductory juxtaposition weighs two aspects of its protagonists’ life very effectively, it quickly gets swept up in their dreams, losing what feels like crucial


Though a documentary, the film is highly narrativized to its detriment. Several scenes between Mahmoud and Fawzi, where they discuss football, girls, and family, feel unnatural. This is a strange quality for a documentary, as if El-Arabi is putting observation aside for quick characterization. There is a contrivance to his editing as well, which eliminates all but the most necessary details to describe the pair’s journey as sympathetic and triumphant. Captains of Zaatari moves away from the tension between refugee life and the dreams of its subjects so quickly that its most interesting observational notes only come from the intro and a scene towards the end where the pair’s families watch them play on TV.

loud and clear reviews Captains of Zaatari movie SIFF
Captains of Zaatari (Courtesy of SIFF)

Parents and family life are crucial to understanding the motivations of the two teenagers, but aren’t given a lot of weight. For instance, Fawzi wants to become a professional so he can provide for his family and restore his father, displaced by underdiscussed camp policing, to them. These moments are all-too brief, contained in the first third of the film’s runtime and only ever picked up later in a handful of phone calls, which suffer from the same expository quality I’ve discussed above. Mahmoud’s family life is discussed even less, so there is an imbalance even in El-Arabi’s focus on the two boys. This information rests on the sidelines as Mahmoud and Fawzi’s tournament gets closer and the doc adopts the language of more conventional, fictional sports dramas.

Captains of Zaatari wants to take the pressing conditions of refugee camps and global displacement crises and flatten them while investing too much in the hopeful aspects of its protagonists’ story. This kind of documentary doesn’t have to be a pitying slog, and isn’t, to its credit, but it feels always like it is missing unbecoming details, opting instead to entertain and uplift an international audience. Mahmoud and Fawzi are likable, sympathetic subjects, and watching them struggle and succeed is exciting. If only the film around them could dig just a little deeper than that.

Captains of Zaatari was screened at the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021.

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