Palestinian soccer drama—‘Team’ building for social change

During a screening of the first episode, Shoumali jokes that The Team is a “soap opera for social change.” Other TV series focus on inside workings of soccer clubs, such as Dream Team (UK) and The Champion (Israel), but they emphasize romantic entanglements and power struggles. These aspects appear in The Team, but the political and social realities of Palestinian life under occupation, as well as a strong desire to resolve problems creatively and peacefully, are what distinguish the Palestinian program as an evocative work of art.

The political events affecting Palestinians’ daily lives, including economic hardship, land confiscation and resistance weave seamlessly into the plot. We see effects of high unemployment as two players, Tony and Hakim, sneak into Israel for work despite the great risk. Another player, Abu Ayaaed, flees from the Israeli army, while Ahmed is injured by a rubber bullet during a demonstration and later is arrested by Israeli soldiers on his hospital bed.

Gender relations are an important theme. Featured are several strong women including Zeinah, mother of one of the players. After her husband’s death she decides not to marry his brother, as dictated by custom, but begins studies at Bethlehem University.

The series also addresses painful issues such as “honor killings.” The student Samira is murdered by her brother, and Zeinah writes a strongly worded open letter to Palestinian society condemning this horrific practice and challenging existing mores. Her writing helps bring these injustices to light.

Without compromising on story or entertainment, Shoumali and fellow creators emphasize the rule of law and freedom of association, challenges faced by women, peaceful conflict resolution and the importance of pursuing one’s dreams. Placing an athletic club at the center of the action evokes the early history of Palestinian sports when such clubs were centers of cultural and political life and identity-building. Archival footage helps show the effects on football of larger historical realities such as the 1948 Nakba—the exodus of some 750,000 Palestinian Arabs following the civil war and the creation of Israel as a modern state.

In The Team, players are active in the community; for example, special events are organized for the disabled. Similar to the recent history of the Palestinian national team, which lost members to Israeli attacks and arrests, members of the fictional club are also imprisoned.

In conversation Shoumali expresses his appreciation for the game’s beauty. This love comes through clearly in The Team. We see children playing in the street like their brethren around the world, their shirts bearing the names of soccer heroes. We learn about club dynamics—conflicting egos and coaching philosophies as well as the way that individuals meld into a team with common goals, reflecting the series’ aim of fostering such unity in society at large.

“We wanted to transmit values of peace and to do that you need to convince, not impose,” Shoumali says. An ex-Marxist, he emphasizes the importance of living together with the Israelis and of communication, with each side recognizing the other’s humanity. “War is the corpse of all civilized things … our dreams should be connected.”

Cinematographer Mohammad Fawzi echoes this desire for a peaceful and just solution. Asked about his connection to sports he responds that during the second intifada he and other cameramen got all the exercise they needed dodging bullets. Fawzi worked for Dutch TV and for Al Jazeera. His film Siege, about the blockade Israeli forces imposed on Palestinian fighters taking refuge in the Church of the Nativity won awards at the Tunis and Cairo film festivals. He also directed a film about Jewish settlers.

I also meet Raed Otham, Ma’an’s general director. His house was destroyed during an Israeli bombing; his uncle, a physician whose portrait hangs on the office wall, was killed by a missile. Yet Otham emphasizes the need to be active in shaping one’s individual and collective identity.

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