In the documentary world, we often get one of two types of stories: the broad-stroked tale of massive issues, or intimate slices of life of ultra-specific characters.
Occasionally, we get a film that manages to merge the two, which ends up telling a much richer story. This year, we have one of these cinematic hybrids with “The Workers Cup.”
Doha, Qatar, is scheduled to be the home of the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Since receiving their controversial bid, there’s been a general awareness that the working conditions while building this massive infrastructure boards on modern slavery. All of the stadium workers are immigrants, coming from all directions and always from poor countries. Their rights as workers are nonexistent, notably missing two freedoms: the freedom to quit, and the freedom to change jobs freely. These are freedoms we don’t even recognize as such in the U.S.
The documentary profiles one of the workers at the Gulf Contracting Company (GCC), a group that is working on the construction. In order to boost morale amongst the abysmal working conditions, the GCC join a league of other Qatar construction companies to compete in a soccer (football) tournament between employees. The documentary follows the GCC team in their hopes of achieving tournament success, the silver lining to their already grim situation.
An expertly told, emotionally charged journey filled with triumph and anguish, and an early favorite from Sundance 2017.
Among these teammates, we get a vibrant and eclectic group of characters coming from Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, and India. Despite their cultural differences, the team is united in its pursuit of victory. In their working situation, where emotion can only be expressed in a few ways, bringing victory to their team is a great outlet for them.
When we watch professional athletes, there is sometimes a neutralization of emotions, as every one of these figures is at the peak of their game. But when we watch a team of construction workers turned athletes, competing for a prize that truly has the potential to be life-altering, suddenly I began to feel the enthusiasm and emotion that I would if I were to watch my favorite team play. This is the brilliance of the story portrayed: it introduces us to a team of people we easily care for and then takes us on their journey toward a major goal. It’s the ultimate underdog story, and therefore a gripping adventure towards a dream. Coupled with the fact that this micro-story represents a massive global epidemic of failed economies and big business destroying the lives of its workers, you can bet there is a lot of great subtext in these soccer games.
Director Adam Sobel’s access to the intimate lives of these figures is on clear display – the intentionality of his shooting shows that he has culled the absolute best material to tell his story. Symbolic images from the kitchen preparing unimaginable amounts of food effectively show us the massive number of people we’re dealing with here. (Facts from the Q/A: 60% of Qatar’s population are immigrant workers, over 1 million out of a 2 million person country. Additionally, the ratio of men: women in Qatar is 6:1). Powerful editing and composition give us insight into the painful realities these characters face. When it comes time for the soccer matches, we’re intimately immersed in the game, making it impossible to not to get emotional about the outcome.
These details are all a long-winded way to say that “The Workers Cup” is a standout in nonfiction filmmaking. I am astounded at how one company’s soccer team can become a story worthy of receiving international attention. There are numerous other details that make this film memorable but I’d rather allow you to experience it for yourself. All in all, it’s an expertly told, emotionally charged journey filled with triumph and anguish, and an early favorite from Sundance 2017.