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From the moment in 2010 that Qatar was named host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the emirate has been surrounded by controversy from bribery allegations plaguing the selection process itself to scrutiny over poor labor conditions of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers that have streamed into the country to build the event's sparkling soccer palaces.
Adam Sobel moved to the country in 2011 shortly after the World Cup hosting rights were awarded, reporting on current affairs and directing documentaries eventually gaining access to Gulf Contracting Company, a construction and investment company with World Cup development ties. Sobel, through the lens of a workers' soccer tournament staged by competing companies in Qatar, directed the film "The Workers Cup," set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday in Park City.
Sobel spoke with The Tribune recently to discuss filming in Qatar and the complicated status of labor conditions in the country.
Why did you decide to document workers' conditions and this workers' tournament leading up to World Cup 2022?
I lived in Qatar for the last five years. I moved out there in 2011 and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, moved out there in 2010. She got there just before they were awarded the World Cup, or the right to host the World Cup, I should say. When this got announced, it was so cool that she was there and then I think immediately, the world's attention turned toward Qatar, which was great for them, it's what they were hoping for, but at the same time, that level of scrutiny came with a lot of challenges for the country and it really called into question, especially, the labor practices.
For me personally though, I moved out there in 2011, and I was working in journalism doing current affairs news and documentaries. While I was there, a lot of the stories were about migrant workers for ABC, CNN, all sorts of international outlets. But the problems with those stories was that because the subject is really sensitive within the country, we were obligated to work under cover a little bit or at least hide the identity of the contributors. I just felt like in doing that, you lost the human touch. I wanted to make this film, and ever since I arrived in the country, you feel immediately this disconnect between the social classes. The only way to interact meaningfully with workers as a white-collar expat was to make this film, because you're just living worlds apart.
Some documentaries are just "drop-ins" to the environment before shooting, but you truly lived in Qatar. How did that help your perspective while making this film?
I think it provides really important insight, but I don't know if it leads to a lot of understanding, because it's mostly about implicating somebody. I was just much more interested in creating empathy for people who are living this life. Our characters certainly find themselves in very dismal circumstances, but they don't think of themselves like that on a day-to-day basis. Boiling them down to just victims ... it just tells this monolithic story that doesn't really exist in reality. They are these individuals with their own hopes and dreams, and I think those should be celebrated.
Was there any desire during the process to tell it from an outside point of view to admonish the companies with these poor labor practices, or did you want to tell it from the ground up?
I never wanted to do, like, an exposé. I always wanted it to be from the ground up and inside out. Starting from one character's eyes and slowly developing the full picture. That was practical as well as being intentional, because I'm living over there and obviously media restrictions are pretty significant. So, I'm going to follow the law everything we did was totally legal. We just couldn't make this film if we wanted to condemn or chastise.
How did you get access to Gulf Contracting Company? What was that process like?
We were able to get access because we lived there, we each lived there for many years, so we had lots of contacts that trusted us to tell the story in a way that was fair. The process of getting access required us to speak to, I'd say we got the blessing of some very important people in the country who would like to remain nameless. They didn't give us their express authorization but they gave us their blessing, which opened certain doors. By the nature of them being involved with World Cup Construction, that means that they actually have a higher standard for their workers than a lot of the other companies in the country. So that was good for us because that meant that they weren't breaking the law, which meant we could film with them.
I think that is a key takeaway. I think people watch the film and maybe see the company as an antagonist, but I hope that they can look far beyond that and realize that the real problem lies in the system. All of us are, in some way, complicit in the system, because GCC has a British partner. There are plenty of Western construction companies and American construction companies that are based there that are profiting off of these lower labor standards.
How did you decide on making the tournament and this particular team a focal point of this documentary?
Without the tournament, I don't think that we would have been able to secure the access, because it was something that we knew people in Qatar wanted to promote. There was a promotional element to the event and marketing element to the event. And the fact, obviously, that it dovetails so nicely with the World Cup which is why Qatar is relevant right now in the world was too good of an opportunity to pass up as the story.
Originally the idea was we wanted to film maybe one player from many different teams and do more of a panorama, but lo and behold nobody wanted to give us access except for GCC, so it made the decision very simple. [Laughs] But also I would say there's an energy to them that a lot of the other teams just didn't have. [The others] didn't have that spark or that life. When we met them, I remember we went to training and they were doing this dance warm-up, and I said: "These guys are alive." Another thing I liked about them is that they had a multinational group of players, which is more representative of the whole system. Most workers come from the Indian subcontinent, not from Africa, but more workers are coming from Africa these days because that's where Qatar is recruiting to offset the number of Nepalis and Indians in the country. That was interesting, as well, to see those dynamics. We got lucky they kind of chose us.
At one point in the film, a new worker arrives from Ghana that becomes the team's starting goalkeeper. He says he'd rather be making money "in hell" in Qatar than be in heaven in his home country. What was your reaction to that quote?
It's just a really complicated situation. I think that first of all, that interview was just shortly after Samuel arrived in the country, so if that was a year later, he may feel differently. But you do bring all of those hopes into the situation and many of our characters the principal shooting on this ended about a year and a half ago a lot of our characters are still there. Some of our characters went home and then went back. It's not a black-and-white equation, right? You have to weigh the opportunities you have everywhere in the world in your personal circumstance at home. People are grateful for certain opportunities but that isn't license to take advantage of them. … If you can take somebody who has very little in life with these dreams and these ambitions and you don't live up to them, that's a certain kind of exploitation. This exploitation of their expectations, it's bad and demoralizing.
Even in the middle of those working conditions, sport is a unifying factor in this film. It seems like competition is an escape for these guys, even when every other aspect of their lives is incredibly tough.
The beautiful thing about sports is that you can preserve your dignity pretty easily in sports no matter what else is going on in your life. Even if you lose, that's not a great loss. But what I thought was really interesting about the tournament in general is that it did create this very emotional escape and psychological escape for our characters and that they could just lose themselves totally in the agony and the ecstasy of it. Even the moments that are so painful and terrible [on the field], I know for a fact that they would want to live those over and over again, compared to the mundane, dreary life that they have otherwise.
What do you want people to take away from your film?
I just wanted to make a film that our characters would be proud of that was our first goal, because like I said before, I think that often the stuff that's made about workers just sees them as victims. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to celebrate them and I wanted them to watch the film and at the end say: "That represents part of my truth." I wanted to create empathy rather than sympathy, and try to capture their complexity and just not think of them as these casualties of circumstance. I think that through our characters' experiences, audiences will relate to very serious themes of disenfranchisement and capitalism that leads to inequality, which is happening here just as well as it is over there. The scale is different but the dynamics aren't so different. I think that's something that people can relate to.
Sports films at Sundance
Several films premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival come from the sporting world. For a list of all screenings and ticket information, visit sundance.org.
"Icarus" (U.S. Documentary Competition) • A film to uncover the truth about doping in sports transforms into a geopolitical thriller involving the Olympic Games. Premieres Friday at 11:30 a.m. at the MARC in Park City.
"Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton" (Documentary Premieres) • A portrait of the fears, courage, ambitions and more of the big-wave surfing legend. Premieres Sunday, Jan. 22, at 5:30 p.m. at The MARC in Park City.
"The Workers Cup" (World Cinema Documentary Competition) • Inside Qatar's 2022 World Cup labor camps, migrant workers stage a soccer tournament of their own. Premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.
"Trophy" (U.S. Documentary Competition) • An in-depth look at big-game hunting, breeding and wildlife conservation unravels the complexity of treating animals as commodities. Premieres Friday at 5:15 p.m. at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City.