Work and Play: a talk with ‘The Workers Cup’ filmmaker Adam Sobel

by Andrew Parker

For his debut feature, filmmaker and journalist Adam Sobel set his lens upon the set up for one of the biggest events in the world. For The Workers Cup, screening this week at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Sobel looks at migrant workers in Qatar who are working to build the infrastructure and stadiums needed for the country to host the esteemed World Cup in 2022.

The migrant workers from all over the world comprise roughly 60% of the entire population of Qatar, and live in work camps that are kept largely out of the sight of the day to day public in the Persian Gulf nation. They’re hard working labourers and office workers trying to provide better lives for their families back home; families that most of the workers will never be able to bring over to Qatar even for a visit. They work twelve to fourteen hour shifts six days a week for wages that average between $200-$400 USD per month.

Naturally, such practices always draw criticism from outsiders, so in a bid to make the experience of working in Qatar more positive for the workers, FIFA and the World Cup organizing committee put together a soccer tournament pitting the workers of various contracting and construction companies against one another. This friendly titular tournament gives the workers, many of whom are footie fans themselves, something extra to strive for and take pride in, but it also leads to unattainable dreams for some and acts primarily as a form of free publicity for the companies that sponsor teams.

We caught up with Sobel on his first day in Toronto for Hot Docs to talk about his experiences in Qatar and witnessing daily life from the perspective of migrant labourers.

I know that Qatar is kind of an anomaly in the Middle East, and it has its own sort of culture and it’s run different from how similarly wealthy countries in that region are run. So as a filmmaker, what’s it like trying to integrate into that culture before you even start constructing a story about the migrant workers who are there for the World Cup preparations?

Adam Sobel: I actually lived in Qatar for five years before the film was even conceived in any way.

Was that before they had been considered for the World Cup?

Adam Sobel

Adam Sobel: It was a year after their bid had been chosen to host the World Cup, and my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was working there. It was the midst of the most recent economic depression in the U.S., and she had gotten her masters very recently, and there were just no jobs. She was offered a teaching job in Qatar at a U.S. university, Northwestern University, who had a campus there. There were all sorts of western universities that had branches there. So part of the goal of the whole country is to sort of get away from their oil based economy and diversify their interests, via education and via hosting the kinds of mega-events like The World Cup that attracts a different sort of attention to them.

In terms of what it was like for me as a filmmaker trying to integrate into the culture, you know, maybe it’s easier for me to talk about it in terms of being a non-filmmaker. (laughs) I definitely had a bit of a head start. But it’s a tricky place. About 90% of the country are non-citizens. They’re people who have been imported from somewhere else. 60% of the population is made up of migrant labourers like the ones in the film, and then another 30% of the population are more white collar workers, and these people come from all over.

What happens is that the culture becomes very stratified, and your nationality, in some respects, dictates what you’re capable of doing there, or what you’re perceived to be capable of. But yeah, it’s a strange place to get to know because what happens is that the citizens of Qatar – because they’re so much of a minority within their own country – are put on the defensive at times, because they feel like their culture is being compromised and being influenced by all these outside forces, which I think is a very understandable feeling for them to have. It creates a pretty insular mentality and experience.

Having said that, as a white collar worker, which is what I was essentially, you could kind of break through those barriers in ways that the characters in the film wouldn’t have been able to. If you stick around long enough over the course of years, you start to meet people, and I think the people there are very socially open, but the fact that you just have so many people from so many different places makes it nearly possible to connect to somebody on a one-to-one level. There’s just a natural skepticism about one another.

I guess in that respect it makes it a bit better for you that you’re chronicling migrant workers instead of the big decision makers for the World Cup preparation efforts. Was it easier for you to look at these types of workers more on a social level than on a big picture level given that degree of skepticism?

Adam Sobel: Yeah, and I think that the goal here was always to tell as story from the bottom up and from the perspective of the people that were sort of the lowest on the World Cup ladder. We wanted to take a look at the story behind the story behind the story. But I wouldn’t say it was necessarily easier all the time. In some respects, I think it was harder, or at least at first it was. But I always thought this was the most interesting and empathetic way to tell this story.

When I was living in Qatar, I was working there as a journalist and filmmaker for this production company that made the film, Mediadante. One of the stories we were often asked to do while we were there was of the migrant workers who were there building for the World Cup. So we covered that for all sorts of worldwide media outlets: BBC, CNN, HBO, etc. And media restrictions are really significant over there. This story in particular is pretty sensitive, so often if you were doing a story about them, you would often have to do it undercover, or you would have to hide someone’s identity. If you went to film in a labour camp without the express permission of people, you would be in serious trouble. We had a rule that you could only shoot for eight minutes with somebody before things could get cut short.

What emerged from that was this picture of the workers as victims. You never really got a human element there. You would just be describing the working conditions there.

So the restrictions you found yourselves under doing pieces like that made the conditions seem even worse?

Adam Sobel: Yeah, they did. Absolutely. They were there to make things seem better, but it would force people to read between the lines more. And the more human bits that you’re able to grab from that are more of the ugly bits. So, yeah, because we were never able to have this one-to-one connection with the people we were filming with, looking at these workers as a team was a cinematic story that we could actually tell. If we could find an excuse to get access, then that was the story we wanted to make because then we could spend actual, meaningful time with these workers in the labour camps with these guys. The tournament that got announced, The Workers Cup, gave us the opportunity to get that access.

Did you have an inkling going in that The Workers Cup was something you could build this greater narrative around?

Adam Sobel: That’s a really good question, but honestly I think it was two things. First, it was literally the only opportunity that we saw, having lived there for years. It was the only way to gain meaningful access because we knew that the World Cup committee that was sponsoring The Workers Cup tournament saw this as an opportunity to promote this event. We thought this was a way to get into the labour camps. Once we got into the camps, we pretty much just stuck around until people forgot about us and we just kept filming. It wasn’t conceived initially that this soccer tournament needed to be the focus of the film, but a way to get access to the story.

The second was honestly that I’m admittedly a fan of sport documentaries, and I think that soccer or football, in particular, has the ability to break down barriers. It gave us and viewers a chance to not see these workers only as victims, but as everyday people who are striving and ambitious people. We can actually show them celebrating success, and dancing, and enjoying themselves, and that’s the counterpoint to the misery that they’re kind of living in, or at least that they are in some cases. That makes it even more significant because it’s a useful contrast. It gave these guys something in return for their work.

It’s also a metaphor for the kind of hopes that they came to the country with, and how that hope gets dashed. I think the fact that they had this soccer tournament while they were building stadiums and infrastructure for this even bigger soccer tournament is a metaphor that kind of encapsulates a lot of what we wanted to say with it.

Was it easier to get the kind of access that you did by focusing only on one team and one corporation instead of trying to do an overview of every squad in The Workers Cup?

Adam Sobel: Yeah, definitely. Initially, it wasn’t the idea to just follow one team. We thought it could be more of a panorama, and we would choose one player from a bunch of different teams to follow. But the company that we ended up filming with on their camps and job sites, they were by far the most accommodating. They basically just gave us permission to go ahead and make the film almost however we wanted. They did have a minder looking over our shoulder for a good portion of the filming, but I actually think the minder got kind of bored after a few months. (laughs) At a certain point, we were totally able to make the film that we wanted to. But through the specifics of this one company, I think you can tell the universal, so this was a good way to do it in this case.

There was something about the construction of these teams that I didn’t expect, which is that they were a combination of the labourers that do the hard, physical labour – the kinds of people you would see in most sports documentaries – and people who worked in the offices behind desks.You usually expect the former to be players on a squad like that in a sports movie, but not the latter. As someone who likes sports documentaries, did you find that subversion of sort of established cliches to be interesting?

Adam Sobel: Yeah, and its a weird thing to consider that someone who sits behind a desk would be considered a worker or a labourer. I think that this is just a strange thing about Qatar and the Gulf Region in general, which is that you wouldn’t expect someone sitting behind a desk in an office to be a migrant worker. That was something that came up a lot during filming. What is or what defines “a worker?”

You even have a scene in the film where during a match, one of the coaches complains that the team they’re about to face has players on their team that clearly aren’t workers. I guess when you stretch the definition like that, it could be easy to bring in ringers to pad out the team.

Adam Sobel: And that team in question was DEFINITELY bringing in ringers. (laughs) They were! We saw these players in question showing up to the match in a Hummer. Everyone thought that was just too weird and unusual. There was no way these guys were only making $200 a month. (laughs) I actually think that, in a sense, there’s a lot of injustice in that scene. They’re thinking, “This is supposed to be a soccer tournament for us, and yet, these guys are playing,” But I also think that also forces us to reflect on what we do when we label someone a worker. What you’re essentially saying is that they are the least significant people in the country; the lowest level of society. It’s not so different from the caste systems of India, so I feel it’s interesting that they apply that term in that way.

As much as it seems like these teams are giving these workers something to strive for and be prideful about, each of these teams is a glorified advertisement for the company sponsoring them. If their workers win this soccer tournament and test their physicality, then they automatically kind of look like the best workers and can earn more contracts. It seems like that’s a surreal thing when you are making a sports film that each team is basically just bundled together under the auspices of helping to promote a corporation.

Adam Sobel: You hit the nail on the head there. It was a bit unexpected for me as a filmmaker when we went out to make the film. I didn’t expect the teams to be walking and playing billboards for the company they represented, but in many cases, they certainly were.

It’s also interesting to me because this is also kind of like the genesis for the club system that took off in the UK. You had companies that sponsored their players, like Sheffield Wednesday. Sheffield would give their employees Wednesdays off to go and play soccer, and then that became a club, and today that’s still a professional club. That’s just been drawn out over the history of the sport. You have to give the workers a reason to want to keep working and give them a mission in life, but at the same time, the company can use it as a way to market themselves when they’re bidding for these World Cup contracts because you have the World Cup committee sponsoring this tournament. So I think it’s kinda cynical on multiple levels.

It’s also interesting because that self-promotion trickles down to the characters in the film. You have Kenneth, who’s hoping that through this tournament, he’ll find an actual club to play for. There are characters on the team that we don’t focus on in the film, and one of them actually got a promotion because he would go up to the CEO after every single match and shake this guy’s hand, and he wrote the CEO a really nice letter to congratulate him on sponsoring them so much. He got a small promotion out of that. So yeah, that kind of self-promotion proves that this isn’t just a game.

These are guys on this team who are working six days a week of twelve to fourteen hour days for just a couple hundred bucks in salary a month. Were you surprised that they had any energy or desire to come together as a sports team at all?

Adam Sobel: They saw it as such an escape and such an opportunity, and most of them loved it. I think even still with the revelations at the end of the film where they start to realize they were just promotional tools for the company, as an individual experience, that was the highlight of their year and of their time in the country. Some of them went back and played subsequent years of the tournament to have that same kind of feeling. I think there’s just something about sport that allows you to live, breathe, and have passion. And when you’re living in these really difficult conditions, you’re away from your families in many cases, and you’re repressing all of these emotions, that’s the release that can be positive. I’m not that surprised that they came together as a team, and they describe what they had as a beautiful moment.

That’s actually what kind of holds the whole film in balance for me; that irony between the tournament being a cynical marketing ploy, but at the same time being this positive experience for them as individuals who need that release. Then it was about being aware of both, and that’s what made things so rich and complicated.

And I should also add, the reason that we decided on following that particular company was because they were bidding on major World Cup projects, which meant that they were being held to a higher standard within the country than a lot of the other companies. You mentioned that it’s shocking that a construction worker would be making the equivalent of $211 a month, but that’s on the HIGH end compared to a lot of the other companies that aren’t as regulated and aren’t bidding on World Cup projects. That was something important for us to document. In many respects, this was a company that was applying the standard that the country had set for them, and if that’s the case, you can only imagine how the workers for other companies are being compensated.

When you are in a country that’s about to put on a major event like The World Cup or the Olympics, there’s an increased scrutiny that comes from outside human rights organizations, which is something that the workers themselves talk about in your film. Did you notice a large presence from these kinds of groups, and did you see them making much of a difference?

Adam Sobel: Our production company that I mentioned before worked with a lot of outside news organizations, but we also worked with a lot of human rights organizations when they had a story they wanted covered in that country, so we were always engaged and observing that process. The situation actually has changed; not significantly for the better, but definitely for the better since Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup.

The issue of migrant workers being exploited in The Gulf does not begin with the World Cup. It predates it by a generation. I think no one really cared until the World Cup was awarded to Qatar. I think that people often talk about these legacies of the World Cup – the stadiums that are built and the stimulus to economies – and I actually think that this will be the legacy of the World Cup in Qatar. If the labour laws change for the better, then it could filter out to other countries in The Gulf because they’re on similar, but different systems. That would be an amazing legacy for the World Cup in Qatar. It’s got a ways to go. It’s not happening overnight, and it’s not happening even in ways that it was promised that it would happen, but I think it is possible for the World Cup to have that positive impact.

Has this changed what you think about what it takes for a country to put together a large scale event like this?

Adam Sobel: It’s difficult, you know? Because I love the World Cup. The characters in the film love the World Cup, and they would never want to see that love diminished. Yet, they’re sacrificing a portion of their lives and sacrificing themselves for the entertainment of others. That’s a really complicated thing to wrap your head around and try and explain. I think that sport certainly has something that cuts to the core of humanity; this notion of competition and of nationalism and coming together. Sport has the power to do all that, but it also divides people and divides societies. And yeah, I absolutely feel different about it all now because I think about all the people hiding in the shadows of these events sacrificing parts of themselves for our entertainment. I think that’s something we should be reflecting on.

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