Director Widad Shafakoj On Capturing The Transformative Power Of Sport In ’17’

IN her second feature film, 17, humanitarian activist and filmmaker Widad Shafokoj follows Jordan’s Under-17 Women’s football team as they compete in the World Cup. Giving personal insight into the team’s journey, 17 shows the strength of these young women and the transformative power of the beautiful game.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke with Widad to learn more about 17 as the film impresses audiences at film festivals around the world.

Q: At what point did you become involved with Jordan’s U-17 female football team and the story of their Word Cup journey?

A: MY documentary films tackle controversial social issues in my country, Jordan. Having received considerable endorsement from His Royal Highness Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein on a previous project, he approached me to create this documentary about the Under-17 women’s football team. With very little time to prepare, I dove right into it and I ended up covering the last four months of their journey into the World Cup.

Q: Can you tell us about some of the hurdles and pressures facing the young women in the film?

A: WOMEN in football are uncommon in the region, and the idea of them playing in the World Cup faced considerable social and cultural pressure. However, this never discouraged the players from pursuing their passion for the game. Issues like safe transportation, basic training, and overall readiness are what truly affected these players, and this is what the society and decision makers should’ve focused on.

Q: Did you have any connection to football heading into this project and how did your perspective of the sport evolve over this project?

A: I am a football fan. As a kid, I used to spend hours playing in the streets of Amman, and I was raised cheering for Argentina and Spain.

Naturally, I knew enough about the sport as I began working on the film. But working with the players, transformed my perception of football. Those are young and ambitious ladies who are emotionally and physically invested in this sport. Their hard work is sensational, and it was great watching them train and studying the team dynamic on and off the pitch.

Q: It was fun for me to learn that former Bradford City footballer Robbie Johnson helped coach the team. Can you tell us about Robbie and his involvement in the film?

A: ROBBIE is a total star! He led the story at several points in the film. While he was brought in to coach a little late, he was able to build rapport with the players, and he shared his knowledge and personal experiences to inform his coaching journey with these young ladies.

In all honesty, Robbie not only guided the football team, but he also guided me and the filming crew.

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Widad Shafakoj at the film’s Jordanian premiere

Q: This is your second feature after I’f You Meant To Kill Me’. How did this experience differ?

A: 17 is completely different than If You Meant to Kill Me. While both films are about women, each covers a different aspect of being a woman in Jordan. If You Meant to Kill Me is a sensitive film that required years of research, but 17 is lighter as a topic and is more global. It was much easier to make, and it awoke the filmmaker in me again. 73 minutes simply did not do it justice.

Q: I imagine this film will act as inspiration to a lot of young women in Jordan. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

A: ACCEPTANCE. I hope audiences leave theatres with a more open mind, and with a better understanding of what women can achieve in various fields. I have heard feedback from various viewers expressing their interest in enrolling their daughters and sisters and selves into football clubs. The players are a source of inspiration now and I’m glad I was a part of that.

Q: What has been the reception to your film, particularly in Jordan?

A: THE film screened in Amman for the first time in July 2018 during the Franco Arab Film Festival. The premiere was attended by a large audience and I was thrilled by the reception and feedback. Everyone loved seeing Jordan from that perspective, many of them connected deeply with the characters and the story, and most importantly there was a lot of support.

Q: Have you thought about what is next for you?

A: I am still touring with the film, it is competing and screening in festivals all around the world. But I am always on the look-out for new topics and stories to document. I thought of trying my hand at fiction films, but my heart ached at the thought. It seems I am still not ready to take a break from making documentaries.

Learn more about Widad’s work

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