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Inspiring 'The Workers Cup' paints sobering portrait of migrant workers in Qatar

Posted February 1

Samuel and Calton appear in "The Workers Cup" by Adam Sobel, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. (Deseret Photo)

"THE WORKERS CUP" — 3 stars — directed by Adam Sobel; not rated, probable PG or PG-13 for adult themes and violent images; Sundance Film Festival

It is remarkable to see people who can be so happy in the midst of miserable circumstances. That’s the inspiring takeaway from “The Workers Cup,” a new documentary featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival about the construction workers who are building the 2022 World Cup stadium in Qatar.

“The Workers Cup” refers to an employee soccer tournament designed to build morale among the migrant workers. Adam Sobel’s documentary explains that 60 percent of the population of Qatar is made up of migrant workers, and those working on the stadium often work 12-hour days, seven days a week.

“The Workers Cup” focuses on a single team, formed among the employees to represent one of the 24 companies — the Gulf Contracting Company or GCC — working on the stadium. Over the course of 92 minutes, we get to know several of the GCC employee-players as they train and compete in the tournament.

Kenneth is the team captain. An aspiring professional soccer player from Ghana, Kenneth was recruited into the company by an unscrupulous soccer agent who promised him the chance to try out for a legit club. Fifteen-hundred dollars and a lengthy trip later, Kenneth is stuck in Qatar hoping for a break.

We also meet Padam, whose wife is back in Nepal and unable to join him because of exorbitant visa costs. Unmarried players try to have social lives while in Qatar but struggle with the stigma of living in the labor camps.

In spite of the conditions — the employees are packed into makeshift dorms that offer little in terms of privacy or accommodation — the team seems to maintain high spirits, and Sobel showcases the players’ enthusiasm.

While most of the film is designed to feature the employees, the tournament — sponsored by the dramatically named Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy — gives “The Workers Cup” its narrative thread. We watch the GCC team train and compete in several games and witness tension behind the scenes as different players and coaches accuse each other of bending or breaking participation rules.

Other scenes away from the pitch color in the lives of the players, such as a dinner table discussion on the meaning of freedom and a sobering scene where one bandaged worker explains how his roommate assaulted him as a creative way of getting sent home to his native country. We only see scant footage of the players at work, but those scenes hint at how desperate life working for the construction companies can be.

At a post-screening question-and-answer session at Sundance, Sobel explained the emphasis on the good-natured players that is so obvious in the film. After doing several small stories on the workers in recent years, Sobel wanted to do a feature that would get past the simple victim narrative.

The result of this approach is a documentary that is very endearing — you can’t help but smile at the upbeat workers, especially when they talk about how much they want to go on dates and live normal lives — but there is still a sense that the difficulty of their situation is concealed and that more of the story is yet to be told. Regardless, “The Workers Cup” is an easy film to cheer for.

“The Workers Cup” is not rated, but would have a probable PG or PG-13 for adult themes and violent images; running time: 92 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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