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Sundance Film Review: ‘The Workers Cup’

Variety logo Variety 1/20/2017 Geoff Berkshire
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The curious union between a social-issues documentary and an inspirational sports doc produces an unusual offspring in “The Workers Cup.” First-time feature director Adam Sobel gained rather remarkable inside access to a handful of the thousands of laborers tasked with building Qatar’s facilities for the 2022 World Cup, and he follows them as they compete in a soccer tournament of their own. What emerges is a nuanced, if somewhat undernourished, portrait of the poorest inhabitants of the richest country in the world.

Conditions for the workers in Qatar — migrants from countries including India, Kenya, Ghana, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, who make up some 60% of the nation’s population — have been the subject of international news coverage and a source of concern for years. But Sobel avoids the sensationalism of an exposé doc to focus in on the stories that bring the various men to the massive labor camps, and what keeps them there.

The reasons range from the hope of providing for their families to a lack of opportunities elsewhere, but without exception, the realities of what these men face can never match up with their dreams. They agree to strict contracts, often under false pretenses from recruiters in their home countries, which essentially sign their lives away. In return, they endure six days a week of backbreaking work for low pay, live in cramped quarters in a remote area, and are rarely allowed to leave for any private or social activity. As more than a few of the men explain, matter of factly, it’s modernized slavery.

And so, as a way of keeping their spirits up, FIFA and Qatar introduce the idea of a Workers Cup tournament, where teams from two dozen different construction companies square off for an annual trophy. It’s a welcome distraction for the men who join, and an opportunity for further bonding off the clock (while subtly reinforcing their commitment and sense of servitude to their employers), and Sobel walks the fine line of conveying the positives of competitive sport without neglecting the underlying injustices of the real reasons the men are there.

That conflict is exemplified best by Kenneth, a bright-eyed 21-year-old from Ghana, who was falsely promised by a recruiter that he’d have an opportunity to join a soccer club once he arrived in Qatar, and still believes he’ll find a way out of the labor camps through his skills on the field. He sees the Workers Cup as a chance to realize his dreams, but the futility hits home in a handful of heartbreaking scenes.

Sobel connects with several memorable characters, including Paul, a Kenyan man frustrated by not being able to interact with the opposite sex; Padam, a Nepali man struggling to maintain a long-distance relationship with his wife; Samuel, the team’s goalkeeper, who lied to his family about why he left for Qatar (claiming it was just to play soccer and not to work); and Umesh, an Indian father of two children named after Manchester United players, who dreams of building his own home.

Indeed, “The Workers Cup” may resonate most strongly among the world’s soccer fans, especially those willing to take a look at the price these men pay to feed other people’s passions. Without casting blame or stirring up resentments, Sobel simply gives the audience characters to connect with. What happens next is up to the viewer.

The polished visual presentation is in keeping with the film’s sophisticated point of view — action on the soccer field is appropriately visceral, while images off the field are captured with an understated elegance that lingers in the mind. Prolific doc composer Nathan Halpern’s evocative score is another big plus.

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