A conversation with Adam Sobel about his documentary, The Workers Cup, which tells the hidden stories of Qatar’s migrant workers.
The question at the heart of Adam Sobel’s documentary The Workers Cup is simple: What is it like to love football when you’re living in the shadow of the game’s worst corruption? The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was won through blatant bribery, and now army an of migrant workers is building the infrastructure to make the tournament a reality. They earn almost nothing, work brutal 12-hour shifts six days a week, and their lives are controlled by their employers: They cannot change jobs, leave the country, or even leave the labor camps without authorization.
Nonetheless, the men building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup men still love the game. To show what life is like for these workers, Sobel followed them to The Workers Cup, a tournament featuring teams representing 24 construction companies helping to build facilities for the 2022 World Cup. Organized by the same group in charge of putting together the 2022 tournament, the tournament is a PR ploy to combat the myriad reports of brutal conditions for the migrant workers building the World Cup.
But the tournament gave Sobel and his team a chance to speak to the workers themselves. Instead of anonymous victims, Sobel’s film shows us complex people experiencing the full range of human emotions.
Ahead of the New York and Los Angeles openings of the film this weekend, Eight by Eight caught up with Sobel to talk about the film, the Qatar World Cup, and whether the system of migrant labor in the film will change any time soon. This conversation has been edited lightly for clarity.
Eight by Eight: The film is very layered, and the characters are very complex. What would you say the film is about?
Adam Sobel: I think that at the heart of the film, it really is the story about these guys. The film exists on multiple levels. It’s a sports film, it’s also a film about human rights. But all of that is seen through the personal experience of the characters in the film. They do represent in some ways the 1.6 million people who are living to make the World Cup a reality, but I think that more broadly they are just universally relatable as people with ambitions and hopes and dreams, who are trying to kind of elevate themselves above their station to make that happen. The film is ultimately about hope, and how to sustain that hope, when you’re in really difficult circumstances.
88: You’ve talked before about how the other pieces you did on migrant workers in Qatar for international media outlets like the BBC informed what kind of story you wanted to tell in this film. Can you talk about that a little bit?
AS: When we were working on other media on this topic, we would have to work undercover, we would have to hide people’s identities. We even had this rule among ourselves that you could only be in the labor camp for eight minutes and then you would have to leave because the authorities would show up. And what can you really learn about someone’s life in eight minutes? You can ask them, “Hey, does the company still have your passport?” And you can ask them what the living conditions are like in the camp. But you’re really approaching their story on your terms, and the terms of the international news media.
So, with this film, we wanted to find some way to approach the film on their terms and celebrate them for their hopes and dreams and not just see them as a victim or as a resource, but as unique individuals that are striving towards something.
88: In the film, the workers also seem very aware of the narrative surrounding them in the media, and how they had been portrayed internationally.
AS: It was surprising at first how savvy the characters were to the existing media around this issue. To be honest, I hadn’t expected that when we started making the film. I think some of that is byproduct of how they feel already in the country. This deep sense of isolation from society that they have, this deep sense of being segregated from everyone else is just part of their daily existence and daily life.
I don’t think that they were hyper-aware as we were making this film of how they were going to be presented in the film, but I will say that each one of the characters had so much pride, and they did not think of themselves in the terms that they were being represented by the media. They didn’t just think about themselves as victims. They thought of themselves as people who, in many cases kind of got themselves into the situation willfully. Yes, the situation was different in many cases than they expected, but to kind of just be boiled down to a victim, that cut against their pride.
88: The characters and their personalities are really what drive the story. How did you pick which workers to focus on, like [team captain] Kenneth?
AS: Kenneth wasn’t really a natural choice to be honest, because it totally cut against the expectation that I had going into the film. We were doing a film about migrant workers and all of a sudden we were doing a film about this guy who was supposed to be a professional soccer player. And that was like “Whoa, that is totally contrary to what I expected to find in the film.” But I think it was because that was so surprising that we decided “That’s interesting. Let’s find out more about him.” And I think that with each character it was a similar thing. You just gravitate towards your people because you get along with them and because you find them interesting and engaging. And those are the ones that we tended to focus on.
But I will say that it was important to me that the characters represented the multi-ethnic array of workers that you have in Qatar. Because certainly we have characters in the film from Nepal, from Egypt, from Ghana, from Kenya, from India.
Qatar is a place where even in the labor camps people are segregated from each other. So, a Nepali will be living with another Nepali, an Indian will be eating with other Indians, and the African workers will be eating and living in a separate part of the camp. So it was interesting to see how they were coming to come together — or if they even would come together — over the course of this tournament.
88: And that racial and ethnic element is something that is below the surface in the film but boils up in a few points. From where you saw it in the team, did the way the different groups came together surprise you at all?
AS: Yeah absolutely. I think that was an unintended consequence of the Workers Cup tournament. It brought guys together in an environment that almost allowed them to unionize by proxy. Because certainly unions aren’t allowed in Qatar, and otherwise guys don’t have enough free time and downtime to get together and talk the way that they could during this tournament.
You mentioned the racial dynamics, and this really interesting thing happened at a screening we had last week. A couple of very famous players were there, including one who was a World Cup winner. And after the film he came to me and he said that scene in the film where everything falls apart and those racial resentments really come to the surface and bubble up, he said the exact same thing happens to him in professional locker rooms. And that is also something about how sports, and maybe soccer in particular, allow us to kind of feel good about ourselves and each other while we’re winning, but those feelings disappear once you lose and all that stuff that you’ve kind of been repressing bubbles up.
88: You mentioned the responses you have gotten to the film at screenings. What has the response been like in general? What about screenings in Qatar itself?
AS: Well I think the response that we’ve gotten internationally is just that the characters themselves are so relatable and people are actually able to process their story on a much more personal level. That means a lot to us, because when we set out to make the film the only guiding principle I had was just to make a film the workers themselves could be proud of.
In terms of screenings in Qatar, since I lived in the country and, since the producers Rosie [Garthwaite] and Ramzy [Haddad] lived in the country for many years, we really do care about the place and care about the society and we want it to change for the better. So we tried to approach this film in a way that could spark a discussion and not just create an argument. We’ve been fortunate to have very strategic screenings with construction company CEOs and ambassadors and people of influence. But we’re hoping we can release this more broadly to sensitize people in the country to what a migrant worker’s life might look like.
88: Do you think that it is possible to make positive changes to this migrant worker system that we see in the film?
AS: I think that it’s important to remember that the system of labor that exists in Qatar has existed for decades. And it doesn’t just exist in Qatar, it exists across the Gulf and in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and even more broadly in the Middle East, like in Jordan and Lebanon. It’s the exact same system.
The difference is, no one cared about migrant workers in Qatar until they won the right to host the 2022 World Cup. So that brought with it this media attention that otherwise just wouldn’t exist. Once the World Cup has come and gone, so too will the window for change. I think that when people talk about World Cups, they always talk about legacies, what will the legacy of this World Cup be. I think that it would be an amazing legacy for the Qatar World Cup if they could improve the lives of 1.6 million people in the country right now, which could then be a ripple for change across the region.
I should say that on a practical level, Qatar at the very end of last year announced that they’ll be changing some of their labor regulations, including the exit permit where you need to go to your employer to leave the country, and they said they will “permit” employees to change jobs without their employers’ permission. These are promises that have been made, but they haven’t been brought to light yet, so we’ll see. But also the [International Labor Organization], which is part of the the UN, just opened an office in Qatar, and that is a very strong sign that change might be possible. And I don’t think that would have happened were it not for the World Cup and the attention that the World Cup has brought to the country.
88: Do you think this change will be able to come about before the first ball is kicked in 2022?
AS: I think it has to happen before the first ball is kicked. I think once the World Cup has come and gone, people’s interest in the issue of migrant workers in Qatar will have passed as well. I think that what the World Cup represents is that it forces us all to reflect on how we’re all complicit in this system. This is the world’s biggest sporting event, the world’s biggest entertainment event, and the workers that you see in the film are in some ways sacrificing themselves for our entertainment. And when people reflect on that, they start to feel uncomfortable about supporting something like the World Cup. So that’s why there’s potential for change now, but there probably won’t be once the World Cup has come and gone.