I viewed the documentary 17 at the 2017 Arab Film Festival in San Francisco. The purpose of the festival, now in its 21st year, is to challenge the Arab stereotypes that have been promulgated in American culture. The festival films “reflect the varied realities of Arab lives around the world.”
Thus, the program I saw purposefully juxtaposed two documentaries: 17, about the young women playing for host nation Jordan at the 2016 U-17 Womens World Cup, and Women of Freedom, about young Arab women, just 90 miles away in Israel, who are targets or victims of honor killings.
Director Widad Shafakoj has an impressive portfolio. In 2010, she created a short student documentary, ID:000 , that exposed the sad lives of orphans in Jordan, and her film resulted in several reforms. The government stopped issuing ID numbers that stigmatized the orphans as having no family and no identity, which had made them unemployable. Shafakoj subsequently released in 2014, If You Meant to Kill Me, her own film on an aspect of honor killings, where women can be jailed for years to “protect” them from family members.
Unfortunately, by comparison, 17 is pedestrian material. Early in the film, we get to know several players. One father is quite the typical soccer dad, giving his daughter advice and criticizing the coach when his daughter doesn’t make the team. But much of this football film is like watching a home movie of a team of girls at a travel tournament, staying in hotels and doing homework. The film seeks to stay very positive and avoids controversy. The major conflict is in the distribution of WC tickets to family members.
Certainly there were opportunities to be more activist, and issues are softly downplayed. An orphan makes the team but then gets no playing time. Examining the cultural orphan issue could have created some drama and built upon Shafakoj’s earlier film on the plight of Jordanian orphans. I even asked the festival moderators why this girl was the only one who appeared to be black-skinned. They seemed a little taken aback by the question (I’m just a very blunt person), then told me she was a foster child. I only understood the girl’s background when I researched the director and watched ID: 000.
Shafakoj also circumspectly handles the subject of how young ladies manage to play soccer in a culture that ranks very low in UNICEF metrics of gender equality. Families and fathers are shown as very supportive of their daughters being footballers. When the soccer dad gets upset, it just seems so… American.
Another slightly whitewashed aspect of the film is the team’s quality. At the time, Jordan had only 725 registered women players. British coach Robbie Johnson was brought in to get the girls through the tournament, but it is obvious that the players are at the level of a high school Junior Varsity team. In a FIFA TV episode, Johnson says his goal is to at least get the girls to be competitive. In their 3 WC games, the Jordanian team gives up 15 goals but scores its first-ever international goal.
Other firsts for the tournament include: the first FIFA women’s football tournament in the Middle East, the first WC appearance for Jordan, and the first FIFA tournament where players wear hijabs. It should be noted that Prince Ali bin al-Hussein was the champion for hosting this tournament in Jordan, and for getting FIFA to allow hijabs. He is a FIFA VP who ran for the FIFA presidency against Sepp Blatter in 2010 and 2015. He then ran in the 2016 FIFA special election after Sepp Blatter resigned, coming in third behind Gianni Infantino.
I enjoyed watching this film for the festival’s intent of introducing viewers to Arab culture. Even though there is a lot of footage on practices and the games, this football film is not really about the sport. And that’s OK, many of the films I’ve reviewed on this site use sport as a metaphor or context for what they are really trying to convey. I was just a little disappointed because the view felt too sanitized, as if, this is the modern Jordan that Prince Ali wants us to see.
In Arabic and English with English sub-titles
Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 6
Note: I edited this a few days after initial publication, as the director was kind enough to respond to questions I had submitted.