PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Director Adam Sobel never intended to end up in Qatar, but it was 2010, jobs were scarce in the U.S. and his longtime girlfriend — now his wife — had just been offered a job teaching at a Northwestern University Qatar. So they went.
While there, Sobel found work with a local production company that did news stories and documentaries for outlets like BBC, CNN, and HBO. One particular story was requested frequently: That of the migrant workers who were building the facilities for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. He didn't know it at the time, but the assignment would ultimately provide the foundation for his documentary, "The Workers Cup," which premiered Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival.
"Because the subject is so sensitive and because media restrictions were so significant, we either had to hide people's identities or work undercover. The human touch was lost," Sobel said. "We wanted to do something that went much deeper than that and really honored the workers for their sacrifices and their hopes and their dreams rather than doing something that just saw them as victims ... I wanted to build empathy for the workers instead of sympathy."
The film centers on the multinational men, from Kenya, Ghana, India and the Philippines, who have given their lives over to slavery-like contracts and dangerous conditions to build the stadiums from the ground up. One man, Kenneth, who was a soccer player in Ghana, shares his story about how a recruiter had told him that if he came to Qatar, he'd get a club soccer contract. It was a lie, and now he's stuck in Qatar under horrific circumstances.
"We've had a lot of context about how the recruiting agents are selling a false bill of goods but certainly I didn't expect that to be wrapped up in a professional soccer contract," Sobel said.
The title of the documentary refers to the FIFA-sponsored "workers cup" whereby teams from different construction companies play against one another in a tournament. For men like Kenneth, it takes on a greater poignancy. Yes, it's a welcome distraction from the conditions, but the fact remains that they are still stuck there.
"We saw (the tournament) as an opportunity because we knew they were interested in promoting this and showing to the world that workers welfare standards were improving," Sobel said. "There was a definite PR angle there that we took advantage of and we somehow managed to stick around and keep shooting in the camps. We were able to actually get pretty close to the story."
Sobel worked on the documentary for three years, and kept it completely secret for two due to the sensitive nature of what he planned to show and the strict media standards in the country. He's excited that his subjects are getting their voices heard at Sundance.
"It's a story about these guys whose lives have been sacrificed in some way for our own entertainment and that in and of itself reveals that we're all complicit in the system," Sobel said. "This is a story of globalization."
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr