Captains of Zaatari is one of the most beautiful films we’ve ever seen at Sundance. Crazily enough, it’s a documentary. It follows two boys, much like any other teenagers in the world, on their dream to become soccer players. And it was filmed with a shocking dedication to cinematic storytelling inside a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan for six years.

On the eve of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, director Ali El Arabi spoke with No Film School to share the incredible story of making Captains of Zaatari.

50828145558_60f0dabb22_cA still from Captains of Zaatari by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: Why did you decide to make this film, and in this very cinematic way, that took years to shoot inside of the Za’atari refugee camp?

Ali El Arabi: I decided from the very first moment that I would not go into the traditional documentary school of making movies. I wanted to create something that would make the cause closer to people, so people would realize and understand that refugees are regular human beings whose lives have been distorted. I wanted to transmit to the people that reality, without the barrier of being a documentary. I want to tell the story of the refugees to people who only see refugees as statistics. 

The relationship between myself and my crew and my staff was unified under one objective: to transmit to the world how these people are living. And I believe that this spirit of cooperation, love, and unity between the crew and myself introduced it in this cinematic way. 

NFS: I'm sure it must have been very difficult just getting permission, but then getting everyone in the film comfortable with you. Can you explain to us what your crew was like and what was the strategy of filming?

El Arabi: During the entire first year, I was just trying to establish good relations with Mahmoud and Fawzi and the family and the place. And establish a strong relationship from my crew to Mahmoud and Fawzi. This trust meant I could not change anyone from my crew for six years. If I changed anything, the boys would be different. 

In the beginning, I give Mahmoud and Fawzi the cameras and I told them, "Okay, shoot me every day. You will shoot me one day, I will shoot you one day." After one year, I had collected a lot of material. It's bad material. There was nothing I could use for the film.

50828145783_814785f2c2_cAli El Arabi, director of 'Captains of Zaatari,' an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

After, I used all that I have, and I have 700 hours of material.

To continue on with the strategy, 80% of my crew were women. I was shooting in a very conservative society, and they created a path to mingle with the families. They started ahead of me. These ladies, I thank them very much for that, were paving the way for me to interact with the families, with the mothers, with the sisters. That helped me a lot to be part of the families, and to be able to capture the images in such an authentic fashion.

NFS: That is very intriguing. Can you tell us what were the tools, as far as cameras and sound, that you chose for your crew to use? How did you manage the logistics of filming?

El Arabi: Starting with the tools for capturing the two protagonists, I started with them. I taught them from day one how to put on their lav mics while they get dressed in the morning. I taught them how to change the batteries and how they can handle that logistically. That's number one.

Number two. In the beginning, I used a RED Epic Camera, but that was too big. I felt the need to use more cameras, smaller in size with way fewer accessories. That's why I resorted to Sony a7S cameras.

Sony a7S cameras, almost no accessories. I resorted to natural lights because I did not want to use heavy equipment, especially with the logistical hassle that I didn't want to go through. I used the sunlight, moonlight, and candlelight to make things get better. And I taught everyone to use the camera, everyone. The sound engineer can use the camera and the cameraman can use the sound equipment. And Mahmoud and Fawzi can use the camera and the sound.

In addition, we made amendments to the camera, so that it would record more hours. We were staying there between five to seven months, every year for six years. So we lived with them, we breathed their air, drank their water, and ate with them. We lived fully with them.

NFS: There are many moments in the film where this is absolutely no sense of intrusion of the camera. Do you use zoom lenses to leave subjects like Fawzi and Mahmoud to talk by themselves?

El Arabi: Yes, I did this a lot. Sometimes I left the cameras and I would take the video assist and I go to another room, and just wait. And nobody knows that the camera is rolling. It was an adventure.

Speaking of the other tools, a very important tool was when we, as a crew, were all taught by one member of the crew, who was unable to hear and unable to speak. He was deaf and dumb. He taught us how to read the lips, and that made us able to communicate by reading lips without disturbing the flow of life of the two protagonists

50828983057_5c6b6c7b72_cA still from 'Captains of Zaatari' by Ali El Arabi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

NFS: I read your background, and know you started as a war correspondent. Considering everything leading up to this and the five, six years to make this film in this way, what is your advice for other filmmakers?

El Arabi: The most important thing is the relationship between you and the characters that are being portrayed. It's very important to find yourself in these characters and find similarities between you and the characters. You must always step up your work. You can’t feel down, you should always be optimistic, always looking forward. The most important thing is time. Time is crucial when it comes to recording events and shooting events. Do not get impressed by the technique. Use little things to make great things.

Thank you, Ali!

What do you think of the incredible production techniques used in Captains of Zaatari?

Can’t take part in this year’s festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.