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DUBAI: Almost 10 years ago, Egyptian filmmaker Ali El-Arabi, the award-winning documentary filmmaker behind ‘Captains of Zaatari,’ which hits Netflix this month, made a promise. He was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest temporary settlement for displaced Syrians in the world, and a teenager he had just met, named Fawzi Qatleesh, asked him if he could tell his truth to the camera.

“The first day I arrived, he asked me: ‘Ali, can you film me? I want to say something to people outside of this camp. The second he started talking, I was like, ‘This boy is my hero’,” El-Arabi told Arab News.

Qatleesh had dreams. He wanted to become a professional footballer. More importantly, he wanted people outside those fences to know the truth about the refugee experience. He didn’t want pity, he told El-Arabi, he just wanted an opportunity.

As the film hits Netflix this month in the Middle East, El-Arabi is overjoyed. Finally, after seven years of filming and a year-long world festival tour, his promise is kept.

“I lost a lot of money, to be honest, because I refused to sell the film to a smaller platform that might limit its reach. It was for Fawzi — because of that promise I made to him. made on the first day. I told him to say what was on his heart, and I would tell his story to everyone. It has been my mission ever since,” El-Arabi says.

El-Arabi knew what it was like to have a message people needed to hear. He was once an athlete himself, a dedicated and successful martial artist, even winning the Egyptian National Kickboxing Championship. During the Egyptian revolution, however, El-Arabi abandoned any future he might have in sports, turning instead to acting.

“Captains of Zaatari” is on Netflix. (Provided)

“I started to feel like I had something to say, but I couldn’t say it with my voice,” he says. “I realized that cinema was the way I could say it. I started making little documentaries about what was going on and showing them on the streets. One day the police came and I took my film and ran. It made me realize the power of what I could say with a camera.

El-Arabi left Egypt, teaming up with the ZDF television channel to film documentaries in war zones like Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. War reporting, however, was unsatisfactory because it so often stripped the humanity of those caught up in its horrors.

“Refugees and war victims were just numbers. It was the news, and the news just wanted statistics,” says El-Arabi. “I couldn’t treat him that way. They were people, and I knew there was more going on than the news could report.

After meeting Qatleesh and his friend Mahmoud Dagher – the two boys he would eventually follow from refugee camp in Jordan to an elite football program in the Gulf – El-Arabi filmed them for seven years before cutting their story at just 75 minutes, resulting in a story that showed their incredible journey while refusing to gloss over the realities of refugee life.

Nonetheless, the film is brimming with hope, and El-Arabi’s proudest moments came to show the film not to the outside world, as he originally intended, but to those in similar circumstances to Dagher. and Qatleesh when he first found them.

“We screened it in a refugee camp in Lebanon, and person after person came to me to tell me that, for the first time, they could think about the future. They said the film showed them that “They could not only have dreams, but also achieve them. I will never forget that,” El-Arabi says.

Since its limited release in 2021, the film has already transformed the lives of the two young men whose story it follows.

“They are stars now. They feel it. Even some football clubs watched the film and want to give them opportunities,” says El-Arabi. “The Jordanian government and the leaders of the camps respect them. The children in the camps see them as role models. I talk to them all the time, and it’s wonderful to watch, although they also feel the pressure from their families that they need to start fulfilling their promise as soon as possible and transforming their situation as well.

A photo from El-Arabi’s upcoming project “Ashish’s Journey”. (Provided)

While he may be done telling their story, El-Arabi has been hard at work in recent years on another – “Ashish’s Journey” – about the upcoming FIFA World Cup. He is inspired by a man who approached him in Qatar while filming “Captains of Zaatari”.

“An Indian came to see me one day and asked if he could take a picture with me. He thought I was a footballer and he told me he wanted to send the picture back to his family,” says El-Arabi. “He said to me, ‘I came here to watch the World Cup. But I didn’t have the money to come, so I came here to work now, so that one day I could meet the famous players. I thought you were one of them.

The more time El-Arabi spent with the man, the more his innocent aspirations intrigued him, leading him not only to film Ashish in Qatar, but to follow him and his family to India, even adding fictional elements (Ashish playing him -even) inspired by the classic French satirical short story “Candide” for the docu-film.

“He’s actually a very good actor,” says El-Arabi.

While El-Arabi knows he’ll wrap filming later this year at the World Cup, chronicling Ashish’s adventures during the games, he doesn’t plan to rush the film immediately after the event.

“I want to savor the material. I don’t want to rush to a big festival. I love working on this film. I don’t want to kill the process — kill everything I put in there — just to get something done quickly,” he says.

El-Arabi also has other projects underway. He is currently producing a film about Algeria and discussing the production of an upcoming project with his best friend Mohamed Diab, the director of Marvel’s “Moon Knight”. Closest to his heart, however, is the fictional film he has in the works between Los Angeles and Egypt, inspired by both his own history in boxing and his relationship with his father.

“We talk to big international stars about it,” he says. “It’s a story that draws a lot from my own experiences with my family, and almost every time I present it to people, they cry. Someone I work closely with, as soon as I’m done, said she had to leave room to call her father.

Although telling Arab stories will remain a key part of El-Arabi’s career, ultimately what drives him is not to capture his identity, but to capture his soul.

“I will tell Arab stories, but I don’t think much about telling stories about the Arab world,” he says. “I think of humans. That’s all I care about. »

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