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Documentary 'The Workers Cup' fails to dig deep on Qatar's labor abuses

Documentary 'The Workers Cup' fails to dig deep on Qatar's labor abuses
A scene from the documentary "The Workers Cup." (Nazim Aggoune)

A new documentary offering a rare look inside secretive Qatar’s labor camps is also a sports film, since its subjects are not only helping build the Middle Eastern country’s infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup, they often harbor soccer dreams of their own.

In “The Workers Cup,” director Adam Sobel follows a group of contracted migrant workers from Africa and Asia — where a majority of Qatar’s 1.6 million-strong World Cup labor force comes from — as they band together for a “welfare” soccer tournament designed to boost morale (including playing in the very stadiums they’re building), despite jobs and living conditions anyone might view as slave-like. (Companies control workers’ residence permits, while laws and gates restrict their movement within the country.)

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Sobel creates natural suspense from the usual competition trajectory of these types of stories, but his individual portraits feel lacking, as if a few testimonials to loneliness, separation, wounded pride and thwarted ambition could ever get at the enormity of Qatar’s criticized approach to a controversial project. Not an exposé, and hardly a case of sports-as-uplift, “The Workers Cup” feels like a toe dip when the topic calls for at least a deep wade.

Sobel does capture one tense moment, though, when a post-tournament confab segues into an airing of race-tinged grievances between the team’s players, until their manager, a company functionary during the day, delivers a fiery reminder why they’re there, and who’s doing the real mistreating. “It is only for rich people,” he barks. “It is not for us.”

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‘The Workers Cup’

In multiple languages with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: Starts June 8, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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