Sons Of Sakhnin United

I’m heading to Manhattan this evening to see Sons of Sakhnin United premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Though this is the first truly public screening of the film, I’ve been fortunate enough to see already as a work-in-progress, at the invitation of its co-producer, the iJamming! Pub regular Michael Cohen.

Sons of Sakhnin United is a football movie that’s also about an issue of real life and death: politics in the middle east. Bnei Sakhnin plays in the Israeli League but is predominantly Arab; you may have heard about them during their first fifteen minutes of fame, when they won the Israeli State Cup and qualified for the UEFA cup (where they were swiftly eliminated by Newcastle United). Sons Of Sakhnin United picks up at the start of that post-Cup-winning season, as the team’s rags-to-glory story threatens to rapidly descends into a relegation postscript.

Hopefully, the finished edit will continue along the line of previous cuts, wherein director Christopher Browne got inside the board room and dressing room, and close enough to the players’ beating hearts, so that the story played out like Roy of the Rovers on film: viewers should all find themselves rooting for Bnei Sakhnin to come good and avoid the drop.

It’s unlikely though that this nail-biting finale will obscure the bigger picture: of the town’s alienated status in the heart of the Intifada, its extreme poverty, the club’s lack of stadium, its phenomenally dedicated following, and the interaction between its eternally optimistic Arab chairman, its hard-driving Jewish coach and its rag-tag multi-ethnic roster. Time and again we come to believe that through this football team, the Jews and the Arabs might come to a greater understanding of each other… and then Sakhnin take road trips to the bigger Jewish cities and we see instead that (surprise, surprise) Israeli football fans exhibit the same racism, regionalism and occasionally outright fascism as the worst of the Brits, Germans and Italians.

Driving the narrative is Sakhnin’s charismatic Arab captain, Abas Suan, whose status, in the words of Beitar Jerusalem fans, as “a terrorist”, changes overnight when he scores for Israel – his home country, after all – during a World Cup qualifier that brings the national team excitably close to the 2006 finals. We see Suan thrust into the spotlight and how the pressure of it adversely affects the team around him. We watch as the Sakhnin fairy tale unravels in full view of the cameras. And we come away frustrated, perhaps, that Bnei Sakhnin does not get to set a greater example for the Israeli nation – but encouraged that there is now a film about the team, to show the world at large that, at least when it comes to sport, Jews and Arabs can play as one.

Sons Of Sakhnin United has a few more New York screenings after this evening’s premiere, and then it hits the festival circuit, hopefully on its way to wider distribution. Click here for New York screenings. You can see a trailer of the movie here. Congratulations to Michael and all at Deaf Dumb and Blind Communications for seizing on the idea and seeing it through to fruition.

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October 2021