“This idea that the Middle East is really backwards, I really want to erase that,” says Tina. “And also, that we’re all extremists that have no space for other people’s ideas.” An Iranian-Canadian now living in Qatar, Tina’s possessed of a bright smile and a wardrobe including slim jeans and D&G t-shirts. She appreciates the education and benefits she’s had in this wealthy Arab emirate, even if, as she puts it, “culturally, it could be more diverse.” Now, she’s ready to see the world—and help to edify it as well.
Tina gets her chance when she’s selected for Qatar’s first-ever high school debate team, part of an initiative by the Queen to move this wealthy Gulf emirate from an oil-based economy to “an advanced knowledge-based society.” As Liz Mermin’s fascinating documentary Team Qatar begins, the team is preparing to participate in the 2008 World Championships in DC, even though they have never debated competitively before.
The film, premiering in abbreviated form as part of PBS’ Global Voices series, follows the team’s education, not only in the rules and conditions of debating, but also in cultural experience. Their coach, 22-year-old Alex Just, former head of the Oxford Union, asserts they need to “broaden their horizons” in order to understand and feel at ease alongside the other debaters—many of whom have been competing and traveling for years. It seems like a good idea, especially when, at film’s start, he’s waiting for his charges to assemble for their first press conference. As journalists shift in their folding chairs, Alex starts calling the no-shows at home, to find out whether they’ve even left. “I’ve worked with a lot of people before,” he says, phone at the ready. “Musharraf, on time, the president of Mongolia, on time. Pierce Brosnan, on time. Er, no, he wasn’t: he was two hours late. ”
He’s only been on screen for two minutes, and already you see that Alex is excellent.
A demanding and encouraging teacher, as well as quite funny, Alex uses most every occasion—good or ill—as an opportunity to broaden those horizons. The camera keeps close on their faces during the presser: Alex—who has been coaching teams for 10 years already—nods enthusiastically as his new contenders answer questions. America is “the dreamland,” says one, “and it’s cool to go there.” Another adds, “I’m curious to see what they say about us, as a Muslim country.” As inexperienced as they may be, the kids are charming too, their obvious intelligence and sense of adventure shaped by their belief that they represent Qatar. Seventeen-year-old Ayesha, who hails from Pakistan and wears a hijab, feels confident: “When I’m playing sports,” she says, “That’s where I’ve learned my competition from.”
The team makes their way from Doha to London, then to New York for a couple of days, before they land in DC. The film achieves an admirable balance between contemplating debate “culture,” which favors decisiveness and fast-talking, and observing the kids’ daily life lessons, which include the same sorts of surprise that might sneak up on everyone. In their “boot camp,” they study and rehearse styles of speaking, learn to present points of information and take on propositions and oppositions (“This house would legalize euthanasia,” or again, “This house would end the war on drugs”). “You want to be winning hearts and minds,” Alex urges, “You want to be the team that people like.” (This would be unlike the team he knows best, the English team, which can be, he says “quite cold.”)
And then they head outside: in London, they tour the Thames and meet a protestor against the war in Iraq, who’s been living in a tent to make his point (“They’re slaughtering the innocents,” he says, “But it’s okay because they’re not us”). Fatima, who is from Iraq, is moved by his effort, but also observes, “You’re far away from there.” A day later, the team is reminded how far away they are from home as they watch a gay pride parade—dancers and feathers and exposed hard abs. On the way back to their hotel, they begin to discuss what it means to be gay (one team member suggests “they” can’t help it because they’re hermaphrodites).
The team members find themselves subjected to other sorts of ignorance when they travel to New York: the Americans have trouble spelling their names and spend extra time checking into 15-year-old Vartan’s identity, because he has a Syrian passport. “This is why,” Ayesha notes, “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? is very popular here.”
By the time they arrive in DC and the film delivers the expected competition montages, you know enough about Team Qatar that it matters how each member does. Supportive of one another, anxious and eager, they perform as a group and as individuals. Alex watches from the audience, nodding vigorously, clapping and gesturing, as invested as can be. Win or lose, he tells them after each debate how well they’ve done. Even if they have doubts, his debaters believe him. And you do too.