★★★★☆

Tell any football fan that ‘It’s just a game’ and they are likely to give you very short shrift. But for close friends Mahmoud Dagher and Fawzi Qatleesh the stakes are considerably higher. For in Ali El Arabi’s stirring documentary Captains of Zaatari their love for the beautiful game offers purpose, opportunity and a much-needed sense of hope for the future.

The two teenagers live in the Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan. The largest of its kind, it is home to around 80,000 Syrians – more than half of whom are children – displaced by the conflict since 2012. Filmed over an extraordinary six years, during which time El Arabi and his crew lived in the camp to gain the trust of its inhabitants before they were granted access, the lens through which the Egyptian director views Mahmoud and Fawzi’s situation differs from the expected portrayal of those who have fled the war-torn country. His intention here is to reframe thinking, to deconstruct preconceptions of refugees as merely needing food, shelter and a helping hand.

And he duly succeeds. Survival is one thing, but to be able to truly live, to thrive, Fawzi and Mahmoud need to do far more than putting one foot in front of the other. They need their feet to do the talking on a pitch, to make their dreams of becoming professional footballers a reality. In the early stages, that pitch is rubble, gravel under well-worn shoes, sandals for some. But in an extreme close-up of Fawzi’s eyes, defiant and driven, there is conviction.

And there are smiles all round. Captains of Zaatari becomes a rousing, uplifting experience as football gives these boys something to hold on to; “opportunity, not pity” as Mahmoud will say later in the film. That is not to say that El Arabi in any way neglects the hardships that these two families have suffered and continue to endure. With Fawzi’s father separated from the rest of the family after, illegally, seeking work outside the camp, his son’s motivation and resolve to provide grows ever stronger.

Education – as Mahmoud’s father rightly points out – should not fall completely by the wayside. Though Fawzi dutifully, and rather strictly, gives his little sister, Roseanna, English lessons by candlelight, it should be noted that there is no room for girls anywhere on the football pitch. They may watch from the sidelines, as Mahmoud proudly, cheekily states when he and Fawzi begin talk of girlfriends, but women are not offered the same chance for advancement as their male counterparts here.

When Mahmoud is taken to a prestigious training camp in Doha and Fawzi misses out due to a technicality, the anger and listlessness he feels is palpable. A second chance comes around and the bright lights of Doha await but when your coach tells you “Your future in football will be decided by this game,” responsibility weighs heavy on young shoulders. Returning to the camp as the film draws towards its close, the boys are now older, in their early 20s, and are coaching the younger players. “There is always hope,” they say. That these young men, whose futures are so uncertain, can maintain such an attitude is truly humbling and Captains of Zaatari does justice to their inspiring, determined quest.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival takes place between the 28 January to 3 February. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63