The Zaatari refugee camp in Northern Jordan, home to the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, sits on a rocky patch of soil, surrounded by barbed wire.
When filmmaker Ali El Arabi traveled there to do some reportage for the UN and the Arab League, he found people poor in opportunities, yet “very rich” in one respect—they hadn’t given up on their dreams.
Two of those dreamers, teenagers Fawzi and Mahmoud, would become the stars of his documentary Captains of Zaatari, premiering at Sundance in World Cinema Documentary Competition. The boys were the standout players on a refugee soccer team, and hoped the sport would be their ticket out of the camp.
“From the first time I met Fawzi he gave me a sentence that is engraved [in my mind],” El Arabi recalled during an appearance in Deadline’s virtual Sundance Studio. “He told me, ‘The only time I feel that I am not a refugee is [on] the pitch while I am playing.’”
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About 80,000 people live in the camp. Some Jordanians have sympathy for the refugees, El Arabi observed, but others do not.
Some see “that they are victims and they are the people who suffer from the way things happen in the world,” El Arabi noted. “[Others] are the people who really, really made me feel like I need to make that movie because they are the ones who think that, ‘The refugees are here to take my bread and butter, to take my electricity, to take my water and they get assistance that we should get.’”
Fawzi and Mahmoud finally get a chance to prove their skills to the wider world when a scout visits the camp looking for players for a Qatari sports academy. El Arabi sees Captains of Zaatari as a universal story about never giving up.
“It’s not just about refugees,” El Arabi commented. “It’s about all the dreamers all around the world, because the dreams these two gentlemen [Fawzi and Mahmoud] have are dreams that you can find in the United States, in Brazil, in India, in China, anywhere in the world.”
Watch the conversation in the video above.