‘The Workers Cup’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

The migrant workers of Qatar involved in the construction of the stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup get to play a game or two of their own in Adam Sobel’s feature debut, ‘The Workers Cup.’

The 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup, sometimes referred to as “the biggest sporting event in the world,” will be held in Qatar, and Adam Sobel’s documentary The Workers Cup tries to give the countless migrant workers in the Gulf state that have been hired for the necessary and pharaonic construction projects a face. Somewhat ironically, the event of the film’s title is a soccer tournament organized by Qatar for the workers who are constructing the stadiums for the World Cup, giving them the possibility to actually practice the sport that their hard work will be glorifying in the future. This tiny little bit of freedom stands in sharp contrast with their generally awful treatment, working seven days a week for years on end; being forced to live in camps from which they are not allowed to leave; and having their paperwork confiscated by their employers so they cannot quit or even return back home. An issue movie more than a cinematic experience, this Sundance World Documentary premiere should see interest from festivals, events and broadcasters with a human-rights focus.

The Bottom Line

Important topic, pedestrian filmmaking.

The most remarkable thing about this debut feature from seasoned TV journalist Sobel, who was based in Qatar for five years before relocating to Chicago, is the level of access he seems to have had to film the workers turned soccer players of one construction company, GCC, as they compete in the Workers Cup. But apart from the fact we spy the boss of the company a few times as he visits the games or talks to the players and some local bigwigs suggest that the Cup “shows how much we care about social and corporate responsibility,” there’s no clear sense of how Sobel’s access was gained, whether GCC had any conditions, etc.  

The protagonists of the film include 21-year-old Kenneth, from Ghana, who actually dreamt of becoming a soccer player and who suggests he was lured to Qatar with the promise of being able to play soccer (he also had to pay $1,500 for the privilege). He was clearly lied to. Sebastian, 38, from India, is a mid-level office drone who helps run the labor camps that the workers are housed in, compounds that they are often not allowed to leave. He becomes the soccer team’s manager as well. Umesh, also from India, has two sons named after Manchester United Players back home so unsurprisingly, he’s a soccer fanatic, while their team also includes men from Nepal and Kenya as well. Their on-camera confessions are quite frank, if often already familiar tales of ignorance and exploitation, and the fact that no less than six men are followed in the documentary means that there isn’t a lot of time to develop and get to know the characters. In the end, the men often act more as avatars of the millions of others in similar situations than as recognizable individuals.

Indeed, the plight of the roughly 1.6 million migrant workers in the tiny country, with a total population of 2.3 million, has been documented before, especially in the written press and on TV. But surely, this must be the first time the lives and lot of these men — there’s not a woman in sight; in fact, this is a recurring complaint amongst the workers — are presented in what is, for all intents and purposes, a familiar underdogs-in-a-sports contest narrative.

The fusion of these two incongruous elements might sound like a great idea on paper, but Sobel’s inexperience with the feature-length format and the requirements of specific genres shows, with Workers Cup constantly struggling to reconcile the horrible fate of what are essentially modern-day slaves with the aspirational side and dreams of victory and beyond that are the end game of any underdog sports story. Long before the very first kickoff, it is clear that even a potential total triumph on the soccer fields they helped construct will not set these workers free.

This means that all the sports footage, and there is a lot of it, is robbed of any sense of drama. Making matters worse is the fact that the cameramen and three credited editors (including the director) seem clueless about how to infuse the footage of the games with any sense of tension, indiscriminately pouring Nathan Halpern’s score over sequences of shots that are pedestrianly strung together. There is only a single shot, of Kenneth taking a crucial penalty, in which framing seems to be used to enhance the potential drama.

As the doc draws to a close, racial tensions flare up and the workers-turned-players start to get more politically aware (“We are not slaves,” utters Sebastian). But before exploring what this awakening of sorts might lead to, the film ends. That said, the closing shot, of immigrant workers cleaning the glittery mess off the soccer field after the Workers Cup finale, is a doozy.

Production company: The Workers Cup
Director: Adam Sobel
Producers: Rosie Garthwaite, Ramzy Haddad
Executive producers: Dennis Paul, Paul Miller
Director of photography: Nazim Aggoune, Joe Saase
Editors: Laura Wellbrock, Anne Jünemann, Adam Sobel
Music: Nathan Halpern
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Sales: Cinetic Media/Autlook Film Sales

No rating, 89 minutes