The Workers Cup - Exclusive Interview with Filmmaker Adam Sobel (in full)


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Nick Barron: When did you know that this story needed to be told and that you and your team would be able to tell it?

Adam Sobel:  I lived in Qatar for five years. I moved there in 2011, so shortly after they won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, and once I moved to Qatar I started working with this production company Mediadante (who ended up producing [The Workers Cup]) and the two producers of the film, Rosie [Garthwaite] and Ramzy [Haddad].

We all worked together making news and current affairs documentaries around the region.  When we were hired to produce things inside Qatar it was oftentimes by international news outlets who were interested in telling the stories of migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup. We produced those features for CNN, HBO, BBC, but this is a really sensitive topic in Qatar, and we media freedoms are extremely restricted. 

We often had to work undercover, we had to hide people’s identities, and, I don’t know, I think that the three of us, Rosie, Ramzy, and I, felt like we were barely scratching the surface.  The work that we were able to make led to some important insights but not a whole lot of understanding.  SO we were always looking for some way to get more meaningful access into the labor camps, and the question was: how could you do that?

The soccer tournament, The Workers Cup, got announced, and it was being organized by the same committee organizing the World Cup, and we knew that there was a promotional element that they were interested in advancing.  We thought perhaps that was a way to gain actual access.

I should say that when we started this project we had no idea that it would be a feature film.  You know, we went out and started shooting and thought, you know, this might be like a nice three-minute film, but somebody’s going to shut us down eventually.  And somehow we were able to continue to go back to the camps day after day, week after week, month after month. I think because we had been trusted as journalists, based on our reputations having worked there for so long, we were able to just negotiate access that otherwise had been impossible for people.  So, yeah, it still feels kindof shocking because we surpassed our expectations.

NB: Following up with you point about limited access, it seems clear that the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy would not want this film to be seen by the rest of the world? Did you run into any barriers while filming? Was there a line that you couldn’t cross?

Actually, I guess I’ll start off by saying that the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy are aware of this film, they knew about this film while it was being made and they saw the film.  We made the film completely independently, but we showed them the film before it had its world premiere, because we didn’t want to surprise anybody.  Because surprises in Qatar don’t go over well [laughing].

I guess here’s the important part to answer your question; when we set out to make this film, we knew we didn’t want to make an exposé, because other exposés had been made already, and to be totally transparent we’d helped make some of those exposés, and I don’t think it really led to a whole lot.  It didn’t change the situation for migrant workers in Qatar in any meaningful way.

My priority was really to approach the story on the workers terms instead of on the terms of international news media, and just let [the workers] dictate the content as much as possible. 

What I’m very proud of about this film is that we’re able to make a film that’s very critical of the situation but it does so just by holding up our characters’ humanity and dignity and the evidence that’s needed to see that the situation is wrong. 

So we don’t really focus on these big headlines that people already know about, you know: “Migrant Workers in Qatar”, but instead we look at the isolation that they feel and the psychological duress that they live under, and just the abject segregation that exists for migrant workers. 

And by focusing on that I think we were able to actually portray something that is: number 1, a lot more relatable for audiences, and number 2, something that the workers could be proud of when they saw this film. 

NB: Sebastian (GCC team manager and a mid-manager of construction) gives a rousing speech about unity after GCC loses an important match.  The images in the film evoke a powerful sense of the loneliness in the camps, which is contrasted by the unity that develops within the GCC team during The Workers Cup.  Were there other moments you sensed unity sort of rising out of the ashes of loneliness? 

AS: I think the entire tournament was a chance for the workers who were playing in the tournament to feel like they were part of something. And they were desperate for that. And I think that’s just one of the realities of life for migrant workers in Qatar; the mundane rituals of just waking up, getting on a bus, driving an hour, going to a job site, working a really long day, often times in really terrible heat, and then getting on your bus going back to your camp eating a meal, going to bed.  This is just a loop that workers are caught in and they live it out at least six days a week, oftentimes seven days a week, for months and years. So they were desperate to break that cycle in any way possible and the tournament offered this rare chance to celebrate something and feel alive.  I think that absolutely brought them together in a way that otherwise, I would say, that was otherwise impossible. 

Labor camps are segregated based on nationality. So if you’re Nepali you live in the Nepali area of the labor camp, if you’re Indian you live in the Indian area of the labor camp, if you’re Kenyan you live in the Kenyan area. So then your roommates are all from your home country and you’re also eating with other people from your home country. 

And that type of segregation is by design, because I think that the company sees a security risk if you bring people together. Because workers in particular just exist in such great numbers. So I think that was maybe an unexpected consequence of this tournament was that it offered workers a chance to come together and kind of unionize in some way. 

NB: What was the general sense that you got from the company owners that were showing up and supporting their team (their workers) in the tournament?   

AS: I want to speak specifically about GCC, because I probably shouldn’t speak broadly about everyone. In terms of GCC, I think that one of the reasons why we were able to make this film is because people actually want to see the situation change in Qatar. You might be surprised at some of the people who want to see the situation for migrant workers change in Qatar.

One thing that I realized in the process of making this film is that just because a system is corrupt, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good people at every step of the ladder that want to see the system change. I think we knew enough good people who kept pushing this project upward and that’s how we ultimately were able to gain access.

And that exists within corporate structures, that exists within government structures, and that exists within the [World Cup] 2022 organizing committee, the Supreme Committee.  There are good people who want to see the system change but don’t feel empowered to change it on their own.  So they would always say that they’re working within the system, and their hands are tied by the system.

I guess that the tournament itself maybe provided a rare chance for “the boss”, like the general manager Graham, to kindof meet his workers on a more personal level and take an emotional stake in what they were going through.  It was rare access for the workers to see their upper management at all and that kindof hierarchy is pretty difficult for a migrant worker to scale.  So even just having an audience with their general manager was pretty special for [the workers]. 

And I think that’s why in the film you see something like Kenneth taking advantage of that moment after they win a game to go to the general manager and say “we need a whole week to train!”

People are pretty savvy about the situation there.  Workers are pretty savvy about what their place is in the company and how they’re utilized by the company.  Workers say, “a machine is more valuable than a man, so if I get injured, they just tell me to keep coming to work or they ship me home, but if a machine stops working then it’s a real problem that has to get solved immediately.”  So I think that there is a certain understanding about the hierarchy and where they land but I also think that the managers of the companies in Qatar understand that it’s an unjust system, and many of them want to see that system change, but they just may not feel empowered to do it. 

People are pretty savvy about the situation there.  Workers are pretty savvy about what their place is in the company and how they’re utilized by the company.  Workers say, “a machine is more valuable than a man, so if I get injured, they just tell me to keep coming to work or they ship me home, but if a machine stops working then it’s a real problem that has to get solved immediately.”  So I think that there is a certain understanding about the hierarchy and where they land but I also think that the managers of the companies in Qatar understand that it’s an unjust system, and many of them want to see that system change, but they just may not feel empowered to do it. 

We also heard from other managers in Qatar in the construction sector who would say, “Yeah, we wish that we could take steps to improve our workers’ lives.  But if we, for instance, increase their salary, then we’re suddenly at a competitive disadvantage with other construction companies who are bidding for world cup projects, because they’re able to promise lower prices and greater efficiency because they’re not paying their workers as much.” This isn’t an excuse for them.  They could improve their workers lives.  But it’s also a valid point.

NB: You speak about amateur competitions telling particularly powerful narratives. At the Daily Soccer Digest, we follow amateur clubs around the United States. Of course The Workers Cup and an amateur club in the U.S. are two entirely different things, but what is it about the Workers Cup and amateur competition that builds a meaningful story?

I grew up playing soccer, I understand it on an emotional level.  The game, whether you’re playing in some sort of championship or whether you’re playing in a kick around pickup match, it doesn’t take much to level the stakes emotionally, if you will.  It’s hard to not buy in one hundred percent when you’re playing the game.

I think that what was really cool about The Workers Cup, maybe that even other amateur competitions don’t always get, is that The Workers Cup was happening in the shadows of the World Cup.  In that opening match they’re playing in the model stadium that was built to demonstrate how World Cup stadiums in Qatar would be built.  So this is in some respect the same field that, you know, legends of the game will play on in 2022. And so that maybe raises the fantasy element a little bit more, but I do think that amateur competitions in general, they contain all of the emotions of any professional event. The competition may not be as intense, the level of play isn’t as hot, but that doesn’t mean that the level of emotion is any lower.

The tournament was an escape. A metaphorical escape from daily life but also a physical escape from the camps and the construction sites that they’re working in.  And so it takes on a greater meaning in that regard than a professional event when guys are going out there and getting paid to play.

The game meant even more to the workers in the tournament because it was the only good thing going on in their lives.  And for that reason I think that, yeah, it had an even greater impact on their life than I think it might for a professional. 

NB: Can you tell me about your Mt. Everest expedition with Raha Moharrak? Is there any link between that project and The Workers Cup?

AS: I’m drawn to stories where sports can be used as a back door into seeing society…as a back door into social issues. Raha’s story was amazing; this woman who could climb the highest mountain in the world but at the time couldn’t drive her own car in her home country.  That, in itself, was really dramatic. It said a lot about Raha, it said a lot about the social situation that she was living in.

I’m definitely drawn to sports stories because I do think that they’re inherently dramatic. I think that they’re a way to get people to care about social issues, they’re a way to get certain people…not certain people that sounds bad…they’re a way to get people who are otherwise not necessarily interested in watching a social justice documentary, if you will, to care about that issue on more relatable terms.

NB: What are your feelings about the World Cup in Russia this summer? I understand conditions have been almost as bad as Qatar for the laborers. Should we still invest so much emotional energy in the international game? Will you be watching the World Cup? And do you have a team?

I will definitely be watching the World Cup this summer.  All of my teams have been eliminated, unfortunately. I mean between the U.S. and I was gonna say I could cheer for Ghana, but Ghana was eliminated!  So, I don’t know, I love watching the World Cup.  It’s the greatest month every four years, and I’ll be watching very closely. 

I don’t actually want to talk about the labor situation in Russia because I don’t know enough about it to draw any useful comparisons.

I think your question more broadly is: “Should people care about the World Cup when there is an ugly side of the game?”

NB: Yes. Precisely.

AS: I’ll just take it from the perspective of Qatar in 2022.  People are always talking about legacies when it comes to World Cups.  I actually am cautiously optimistic about the potential for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to make some sort of meaningful change to the labor situation in the country.

The labor situation in Qatar predates Qatar winning the right to host the World Cup by several decades.  The difference is that once Qatar won the right to host the World Cup people suddenly cared about migrant workers in Qatar.  But migrant workers had been there for decades and had been living under the same kafala system that exists today. 

So I think what that also indicates is that come 2022 when the World Cup has come and gone, people’s interest in the labor situation in Qatar will have also passed. So I do see it as this short window of time when Qatar is in the spotlight, migrant workers in Qatar are in the spotlight, and hopefully that kind of critical attention can actually change things for the better. And I think that would be an amazing legacy for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to leave behind.

I still think it’s got a long ways to go before any meaningful change is made. But I do think that there’s momentum in that direction and I don’t think that momentum exists without the World Cup. I’m not trying to say “good on Qatar because now they’re changing the labor situation” because it’s an unexpected consequence of hosting the World Cup, but I do think it could be a positive consequence. 

We should continue to be invested and we should just not be passively invested. In some respect workers in Qatar are sacrificing themselves, their livelihood, for our entertainment. And that makes us complicit in a way.  If we, as fans of the sport, can’t be critical about it and raise our voice, then we become complicit. 

So hopefully people feel that sense of responsibility and somehow can balance that responsibility with their love for the game as well.  I guess that’s the irony, even for the workers in the film; they were suffering to build the World Cup, but they love the World Cup!  They would be devastated if it didn’t happen.  So I do think that the film reveals that there is a different way to evaluate how we find meaning and what we truly care about, what we truly value.