BBC Storyville’s spring season got off to a promising start last week with the screening of Team Qatar, the latest observational documentary from Liz Mermin, who already has three Storyvilles under her belt (Shot in Bombay, Office Tigers, and The Beauty Academy of Kabul). The film follows a team of five high school students from Qatar as they form the first national high school debating team, and dive in at the deep end by participating in the World Schools’ Debating Championships in Washington DC. Led by chatty and charismatic British coach Alex, and his Oxford debating champion colleagues, the film follows them on an intensive training course in London and Doha before heading to the US where they find themselves debating teams from Bangladesh to Botswana. Like all good competition films, this one has you glued to your seats and rooting for the underdog.
It succeeds also as a riveting cultural study, particularly of teenagers from an area of the world many would struggle to place on a map. ‘The kids are so precisely not what someone would expect from the Gulf,’ says Mermin. ‘I thought, I’d never seen teenagers like this from that region on film, and that’s a worthwhile thing to do.’ Two of the three girls on the team are from quite sheltered backgrounds, and their introduction to the West is a joy to watch. ‘Fatima and Ayesha were, as teenagers tend to be, quite judgmental and very moralistic, and they’re quite religious,’ says Mermin. ‘And their concept of sin and the type of people it was appropriate to associate with were fairly strong…. One of my favorite shots in the program is where Fatima is posing next to this girl from Eastern Europe wearing this incredibly low cut tight dress. I think it opened eyes in a lot of ways.’
After the chaos of Shot in Bombay, which told the frenetic multilayered story of a Bollywood gangster film where life too often imitated art, Mermin found the more straightforward narrative of this film enjoyable to make. ‘I worked with the same editor I worked with on my last two films, and we were saying ‘God it’s such a pleasure to have something with such an obvious narrative arc, this is such a relief.’ She also enjoyed filming in Qatar. ‘My last two films were in India, and Afghanistan before that, so Doha was a breeze. Other than they have a certain traffic problem and it’s 120 degrees and horribly humid. But it’s not the kind of place where people bother you or ask you what you are doing.’
Never resting for long, Mermin is already deep into editing another Storyville, this one a bit more challenging than a debating competition: ‘It’s a film about Ireland race horses. The horses are supposed to be the main characters and it’s supposed to be about their personalities and experiences as opposed to the people around them,’ she says ruefully. ‘It’s one of those things which sounded really good on paper but I haven’t really figured out how to do it.’ Stay tuned to find out….