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Captains Of Zaatari Premieres at Sundance 2021

Written by: Nikoleta Morales

Captains of Zaatari focuses on two best friends Mahmoud and Fawzi, living in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, have an undying dream of becoming professional soccer players while facing the difficult reality of their lives. Despite being confined under dire conditions, they remain hopeful and practice day in and day out. When a world-renowned sports academy visits, both have a chance to make this dream come true. Though they both have no sense of what the future holds for them, they focus their energy together on their first love: soccer. Despite the dire circumstances in the camp, they practice day in and day out, believing firmly that playing professionally is their ticket tofreedom.

When Aspire Academy, one of the world’s leading sports academies, arrives to pick players for an international tournament in Doha, they quickly identify Mahmoud as a talent and fly him there, while Fawzi is left behind due to a technicality. Mahmoud is boarding a plane for the first time and is taking in the experience, while Fawzi is facing the difficult reality in Zaatari.

Unexpectedly, the Aspire coaches decide to fly Fawzi in to join his team. The two best friends train and compete in the most important soccer matches of their lives, while their families in Zaatari watch via satellite. After the final match, they speak at a press conference. On behalf of the displaced people of Syria, they make clear that people need an opportunity, not pity. Three years later they grew to young men. They are still stuck in Zaatari, still troubled by fears of an insecure future.

The on-going drama that is playing out in Syria has been an important topic for several years. Yet, Captains of Zaatari is not just ‘another film about Syria’. It takes the viewer beyond that. It’s a story of an intimate friendship that allows insight into the emotional bond between two teenagers being confronted with the same destiny.

It’s a story about dreams. It’s a story about two skilled, driven individuals growing up while trying to find their path in this world, seeking fulfilment and success. Especially in a time where the overall sentiment towards refugees is shifting towards a less compassionate but more reluctant attitude and nationalist movements are arising all over the world, we need to hear voices that we can emotionally relate to as human beings.Captains of Zaatari enables the viewer to feel.

Cultured Focus met with the Director Ali El Arabi to discuss his film, his motivation for making it and what he hopes audiences take away from it. View the full interview below on Youtube.

About The Zaatari Refugee Camp: Jordan

Zaatari first opened in 2012 to host Syrian refugees; it is the largest camp for Syrians fleeing the war.

Located in northern Jordan, Zaatari refugee camp hosts around 80,000 Syrians who have been forced to flee the war in Syria. More than half of these refugees are children. The camp, divided into 12 districts, has grown from a collection of tents to a semi-permanent city.

At its peak, it housed around 150,000 Syrian refugees, becoming the fourth-largest city in Jordan. For the refugees it is the nearest thing to home, but many are still struggling to find work, surviving on limited aid or working illegally. Less than a fifth of them have current work permits. Women in particular are excluded from employment opportunities as they battle with social norms that dictate that they stay close to home.

About Aspire Academy

Aspire Academy is a sports academy in Doha, Qatar. It is focused on developing young athletes and supporting social soccer projects all around the world. Visit:

Film Director and Crew:

Ali El Arabi (DIRECTOR/PRODUCER) Ali El Arabi is an Egyptian director/ producer. He got his start making short documentaries at Dream TV (Egypt). He went on to produce documentaries for ZDF, Stern TV Germany, and National Geographic in the MENA region. In 2015, El Arabi set up Ambient Light, a Cairo-based production company where he focuses on various topics relevant to the MENA region such as refugee displacement and women’s and children’s rights. The company now is focused on character- driven stories with international appeal regardless of their genres. El Arabi holds a bachelor’s degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Mansoura University. Captains of Zaatari is his debut feature film.

Michael Henrichs (CO-PRODUCER) Michael is the Managing Director and Producer at Die Gesellschaft DGS, a Cologne-based development and production company. Over the course of his career, Michael has been involved as a Producer, Co-Producer and Associate Producer on a variety of short films, feature films, series, and documentaries. Recently, Michael was awarded the Hamburger Produzentenpreis for Best European Co-Production in 2019 for his work on You Will Die At Twenty. Michael was the Co-Producer on Sew the Winter to My Skin, which was selected as the South African entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 91st Academy Awards. Among other credits, Michael also co-wrote, co-directed, and produced An Indiscreet Journey, which premieredat Edinburgh FestivalFringe and the New ZealandInternational Film Festival.

Amjad Abu Alala (CO-PRODUCER) Amjad Abu Alala is a Sudanese director and producer, born and currently residing in the UAE. He made several short films that screened at different film festivals such as “Coffee and Oranges”, and “Studio” which was supervised by Abbas Kiarostami. In 2013, Alala received the Best Arabic Theatre Script Award from the Arab Authority for Theatre for his piece “Apple Pies”. Currently, Alala holds the position of Head of Programming Committee at Sudan Independent Film Festival. His last feature film as a director and producer You Will Die At Twenty won a Lion of the Future at Venice International Film Festival. AYA

Dowara (CO-PRODUCER) Aya Dowara is a film producer and cultural specialist at the U.S. Embassy Cairo where she designed and implemented the film program in addition to managing portfolios of entrepreneurship, sports, gender, and youth programs. Dowara is an active member in civil society; in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, she co-founded Qestas, an organization for Peace, Development and Human Rights. Dowara holds a master’s degree in Euro Mediterranean studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Cairo University.

Daniel J. Chalfen (CONSULTING PRODUCER) Daniel J. Chalfen is a Peabody and DuPont-winning and multiple-Emmy nominated film and television producer and a co-founder of Naked Edge Films. His films have premiered at the world’s foremost film festivals, including Berlin, Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, and Tribeca, have been released theatrically by companies including Samuel Goldwyn Films, Participant Media, Kino Lorber, and Focus Features, and have played worldwide including in the US on Amazon, DirecTV, Discovery, HBO, Netflix, Showtime, and PBS. Chalfen’s recent films include Pray Away (Tribeca, Telluride 2020), Red Heaven (SXSW 2020),The Infiltrators (Sundance 2019 award winner), Always in Season (Sundance 2019 award winner), United Skates (executive produced by John Legend), Bathtubs Over Broadway (executive produced by David Letterman), Call Her Ganda, The Feeling of Being Watched, Southwest of Salem, Silenced (executive produced by Susan Sarandon), Gone; The Revisionaries, Pretty Old (executive produced by Sarah Jessica Parker), Donor Unknown, and War Don Don. Chalfen is a Documentary Branch member of AMPAS and a voting member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).


Mark Lotfy is an Egyptian producer and film director. After receiving a BSC. in engineering at Alexandria University, he studied at a film-making workshop with “SEMAT” for 2 years, before directing his first short film (“Minerva”). He is also the owner and manager of Fig Leaf Studios in Alexandria, Egypt. The studio has helped the local independent cinema movement by supporting artists and filmmakers with equipment and technical assistance. Through the studio, he has made many short fiction films and documentaries as a producer and director. His latest work, “I Am Afraid To Forget Your Face” was officially selected in the short competition at Cannes along with Souad which was part of the official selections of Cannes 2020.


Rodrigo Brum is a Brazilian philosopher and filmmaker residing in Cairo. As a filmmaker, he has received a Dowell Colony Fellowship, as well as a Leon Levy Foundation Grant. Brum’s first feature, a documentary about an abandoned village in Cape Verde, Africa, is currently in post-production. Since 2018 Brum has been teaching Film classes at Cairo University. Brum holds an MFA in Film, Video, New Media and Animation at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and an MA in Philosophy at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Mahmoud Basher (DOP)

Mahmoud Basher began his career in advertising before moving to film and television. He has worked as DOP in and out of Egypt for National Geographic, Al Jazeera (Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tunisia, Italy, France, Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kuwait). Basher joined Ambient Light Productions as a freelance DOP in 2015 and was the first unit DP for Captains of Zaatari in both Jordan and Qatar.

Menna El Shishini (EDITOR)

Menna El Shishini is an Egyptian film editor. In 2017, she worked as an editor on Poisonous Roses, an Egyptian feature-fiction. Prior to that, El Shishini worked on several short documentaries, both as an editor and assistant director. As an editor, Captains of Zaatari is her first feature documentary. In 2016, El Shishini received her Bachelor’s degree in Film from the American University in Cairo. Ambient Light For more on production company Ambient Light, please visit: The company was established by Producer / Director Ali El Arabi, to produce long and short form documentaries and investigative pieces in the Middle East and beyond.


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