Ali El Arabi: Narrating the Untold Stories



Tue, 15 Feb 2022 - 10:38 GMT


Tue, 15 Feb 2022 - 10:38 GMT

File: Ali El Arabi.

File: Ali El Arabi.


Award-winning documentary Captains of Za’atari tells a human story of hope and the fulfillment of dreams.

The world premiere of Captains of Za’atari was at the Sundance Film Festival, followed by other international film screenings, and in every screening the movie managed to receive wide international acclaim.


After the film was awarded El Gouna Star for the Best Arab Documentary Film (Trophy, Certificate, and US $10,000) at this year’s Gouna Film Festival, Egypt Today sat down with filmmaker Ali El Arabi to chat about his documentary.


1-Captains of Za’atari tells the story of a junior football team in a Syrian refugee camp. How have international audiences reacted to it?

The movie selection at Sundance was a very pleasant surprise, as one of my dreams was to get there. The film also ranked second on the critics’ list of Sundance’s 15 best films. Despite the diverse backgrounds and nationalities of the different festival audiences, I was surprised by their reception of the film and how they related to the characters’ story. This may be in part due to the fact that its dramatic structure is close to that of a feature film. There is also the dream, the hope, and the friendship that binds the two boys who have grown up before the audience over the seven years of filming.

2-How did El Gouna Film Festival support the documentary?

El Gouna Film Festival supported the film at a crucial and important stage. We came to CineGouna in post-production, after an arduous production journey to showcase parts of what we filmed, and that’s how we had co-producers. Yet, I was waiting for Arab audiences’ feedback with great concern. For foreign audiences, the friendship between two teenagers who dreamed of becoming professional football players was the crux of the story. On the other hand, the film’s protagonists belong to a Syrian refugee camp, and this is an issue that has other dimensions for the Arab audience. Perhaps they would have expected the movie to get into politics while I was trying to get away from it. My goal was to tell a human story about hope and the fulfillment of dreams, not about numbers in a camp as in the news. I hope this is what will resonate.


3-What were the main obstacles that faced you while making this movie?

There is the challenge that this movie is my debut feature. Also it was a bit risky to make a movie like this, because it required following the daily lives of its two characters Mahmoud and Fawzy in the camp over the course of seven years without being sure where it would take us: will they become professional players, give up and stay in the camp, or will they go back to Syria? All roads lead to my film, but the uncertainty is unpleasant for the producers. That’s why I decided to take the risk myself and produce the film with my own resources then later look for partners. It feels like I did the right thing, and if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t hesitate to make the same decision.


4-What inspired you to make Captains of Za’atari?

For many years I worked as a war correspondent for a news channel, during which I made dozens of television documentaries. But I have often felt guilty for living off the agony of war victims who are mere numbers and statistics for news reports, but not human beings who have hopes and dreams. After a short period of time away from the news channels, I decided to tour refugee camps in 22 different countries in an effort not to be a passive viewer of events. My goal was to convey refugee stories to the world from a closer and more humane point of view. That was until I met Mahmoud and Fawzy in the Za’atari camp in Jordan in 2013. When Fawzy asked me, “What is life like outside the camp?” I felt that to him we were aliens carrying cameras and chasing his life. At this point, I decided to approach their world with the intention of staying for a week or two in the camp, but the period lasted more than six years and 700 hours of filming.


5-How did you manage to depart from your usual style of news reporting? 

My decisions were free from the constraints and fears of expectations and prejudices, as I had no intention of showing the film at a festival or on a channel, nor had I hoped to persuade the producers. I had no fear of failure, dissatisfaction or losing money, and my team was extremely supportive. The goal was to get closer to the kids’ lives and we were there for all the intimate moments that the news cameras didn’t care to capture. My relationship with Mahmoud and Fawzy was closer to that of brothers, which was reflected in the way they appeared in front of the camera. I wanted people watching the movie to feel that they were inside the camp. We never interfered with the course of events and did not direct the characters in any way. We filmed so many recurring events from which we chose the most expressive during the editing phase, and this was quite a challenge. 


6-You visited 22 camps in search of a story. Why did you specifically choose to tell Mahmoud and Fawzy’s story? 

The power of a dream and friendship. I can meet Mahmoud and Fawzy in India, China, Egypt, Tunisia or anywhere. Anyone will feel something in common with their story. I myself have had similar experiences to theirs in my hometown of Mansoura at their age. Each of us has a friend whom he loves, and a family member he wants to help, just like Mahmoud and Fawzy. 

This is what I am currently writing about for my feature film project. I once dreamed of being the world champion in boxing, and I pursued that dream. So, I understand very well what the two boys are going through. Fawzy looks like me in his wildness when I was his age. I come from a poor village in Mansoura, where I had many dreams at a time when the dream was called madness. I had no support. I have had a journey where my dream and my will were all I had and it’s still on.

7-One can argue that oming-of-age films are quite rare in Arab cinema. What was it like working with this age group?

Characters at this age are much richer. At this age, we have many contradictions, and our ambitions and dreams are much greater than their true size, even our sorrows. The transformations that happen from the beginning of adolescence to the end make you feel like you’re dealing with two personalities, or one split into two, which is quite inspiring to follow.


8-What did you learn from this film?

What the movie gave me is far more important than the time and money it cost me. It’s an affirmation that I can tell the stories I want the way I want, and that a documentary can be popular, at least that’s what has happened with the film with Western audiences so far. And that a movie can succeed without a famous producer, director or actor as long as people believe in it. 

   This movie changed me a lot and put me on the map as a director and producer. Through this film, I realized that as a generation we can make films by ourselves without guardians.



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