Footballer Hakeem al-Araibi represented his country of Bahrain at some of the most elite youth levels of football. But his vocal disagreements and activism against the Bahraini government during the 2011 citizen uprising ended up forcing Hakeem to leave his home and find asylum in Australia. Here, he thrived in the semi-professional Victorian football leagues and found love, marrying his wife in 2017 and being granted refugee status.
His refugee status allowed Hakeem to travel outside of Australia with documentation and the assurance of protection, specifically from extradition back to his home country of Bahrain where an issue for his arrest was active.
However, in 2018, Hakeem and his wife took a trip to Thailand for their honeymoon, where unfortunately an alert triggered upon his arrival for an Interpol red notice order calling for Hazeem’s arrest and extradition to Bahrain, accusing him of terrorist activities. Awaiting extradition from a jail cell in Bangkok, a group of human rights activists, social media warriors, and former Socceroos captain Craig Foster launch a campaign against all odds to bring Hakeem home.
The Defenders is a documentary recounting the true story of Hakeem’s detainment and how his story made its way to Craig Foster (co-writer of the documentary), who post his retirement from professional football had a successful career in the media as an analysist for ‘The World’s Game’ on Australian broadcasting network, SBS. Foster’s belief that all who play football in Australia are family, and his own disdain for the mistreatment of those seeking refuge in Australia, decided that his presence in the media could kickstart enough noise to get Hakeem home.
Told through archival footage, interviews with the likes of Foster, Hakeem and those involved in saving him, plus unheard phone conversations from Hakeem during his time in prison, The Defenders plays out as a countdown to Hakeem’s extradition that is tense, engaging and horrifying.
One of the most intriguing elements of The Defenders is how director Matthew Bate intertwines a narrative that is at a constant battle with itself. Every disgusting revelation of the political corruption in Bahrain, the oppression of their people, and on a grander scale, the corruption of FIFA as a corporation, is counteracted by the compassion and persistence of Craig Foster and the foundational team behind the viral #SaveHakeem movement. And that’s a strength of the documentary. It’s ability to inform the viewer of the unfair brutality that was shown to Hakeem (and the matter-of-fact nature that it’s not just him who has been through this), but also relish in the overpowering message of humanity, and how the power of people can be used for ultimate good.
Mostly a voice over throughout the documentary, Hakeem’s story is an important foundation of The Defenders, but it is ultimately told through Craig Foster’s perspective. While Craig is an important part of the overall story, the sprinkling in of Hakeem’s phone calls or voice overs give a good idea of what was happening play-by-play on both sides of the bars, even though due to the limited access the documentary crew had in Thailand, it is mostly Foster seen on screen.
At 81 minutes in length, The Defenders wastes no time telling Hakeem’s story, but also using its break-neck pace to heighten the intensity of the race-against-the-clock nature of the campaign to bring Hakeem home. The relentless nature of the documentary is a vehicle to put the viewer in the atmosphere and mindset of people like Hakeem and Craig during this time. The Defenders grabs you from minute one and pulls you along until it’s closing text.
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