Touchline: Scuppered dreams of a young Palestinian footballer

Touchline: Scuppered dreams of a young Palestinian footballer
5 min read
10 June, 2022

Palestinian-American helmer Mohammed Saffouri’s latest short, titled Touchline, is the first Jordanian production selected by the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, unspooling this year from 8-19 June.

The story of Touchline is set within the context of the Nakba of 1948 and centres around a 17-year-old boy, called Ahmad (young Basil Askar), who plays football in a local club in his hometown, Haifa.

Following a great performance during a friendly match, he receives an offer to play for the Palestinian National Team.

On his way back home, however, Ahmad and his two friends face soldiers blocking their way and see people fleeing. He comes back home and finds his family packing to seek refuge somewhere safe. With great tact and sweetness, Saffouri crafts the tale of a boy forced to leave his dreams behind and grow up sooner than expected.

Released in 2021 following the proposed dispossession of families in Sheikh Jarrah, Saffouri said how the film is intended “to introduce the American people to the situation in Palestine and the Nakba of 1948"

Before working on Touchline, Saffouri has directed three films, produced four and penned other three. He also earned a Capital Emmy for his debut documentary, The First. An alumnus of the George Mason University, his work has been screened at festivals such as the Washington DC International Film Festival, the Virginia Film Festival and the Malmö Arab Film Festival.

Ahead of its North American premiere on 13 June, The New Arab spoke with Saffouri, who talked through the making of his latest effort and his artistic vision.

Based on the real-life of Saffouri’s grandfather, the short was made as part of the director’s senior thesis while studying at George Mason University.

Released in 2021 following the proposed dispossession of families in Sheikh Jarrah, Saffouri said how the film is intended “to introduce the American people to the situation in Palestine and the Nakba of 1948. 

“I couldn’t find a better story to tell than that of my own grandfather who lived through this war and experienced the oppression of being kicked out of his own hometown, forced to give up his land, home, friends and, most importantly, his dream of playing soccer for the Palestinian National Team.

"I heard this story directly from my grandfather when I was a child, and I felt it was especially compelling, yet succinct and specific enough to develop into a powerful narrative that could be told in under 15 minutes,” he further explained.

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Saffouri spearheaded the search for his lead, while casting director Mona Shebabi provided him with some recommendations for actors to fill supporting roles such as the boy’s mother and father (portrayed by Lina Abu Rezeq and Anas Algaralleh, respectively).

Speaking about his choice to cast Askar as Ahmad, he said: “We had two main auditions. […] I was looking for someone short who looked like he was in his teenage years and had both acting and football experience. It was difficult to find all of these characteristics in one person in a small city new to the film industry such as Amman.

"Thankfully, in the second round of auditions, we found Basil Askar who met all the criteria I was searching for in my lead actor. Paired with the actors hired through Mona’s recommendations, we were able to establish a very talented group.”

Still from Touchline [Mohammed Saffouri]
Still from Touchline [Mohammed Saffouri]

The creation of a solid technical crew has also been an aspect of primary importance.

Sharing the same artistic vision has not been an easy task, but the cooperation with DoP Ghassan Nazmi, editor Dhouha Aljabiri and composer Omar [El-Deeb] has proven successful: “Our DP, Ghassan Nazmi, put substantial effort into pre-production to develop my vision into the moving image. On set, he was excellent at capturing the lived experience of those in Palestine in 1948.

"On the other hand, our editor, Dhouha Aljabiri, did a fantastic job of balancing her responsibilities to the film with her responsibilities to her full-time job and one-year-old baby.

"She managed to edit a compelling film thousands of miles away from me. […] I heard about Omar [El-Deeb] from a friend who highly recommended him, so I reached out and shared the story. I told him I wanted the music to reflect Middle Eastern culture and history and meld the essence of the region with that of the story. I sent him some music references, and he did an amazing job.”

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Saffouri also disclosed that one of the biggest challenges was staying authentic to the story and making it interesting to the audience. “As powerful as the story of my grandfather is, it still misses important elements of storytelling.

"I wanted to maintain the story’s authenticity while adding dramatic elements that would make it more compelling. The ending of my grandfather’s story was hard to capture in a short film, and it was suggested to me by other filmmaking friends and mentors that I create a different ending that would better draw the attention of viewers,” he added.

The director is now developing his first feature: “It’s also being inspired by the true story of one of my family members. It explores many different topics such as grief, birth tourism, the intersectionality of identities, and the issues that travel-document holder Palestinians face. I'm applying for development grants to continue writing the script.”

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland. 

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni