Champ of the Camp gives UAE labourers a voice
Construction workers are an ever-present part of the landscape of the UAE. Most days we see them toiling on building sites, we overtake their buses on the motorway, or wander past them in parks. But while we may share the same physical space, it’s an uncomfortable truth that few of us have any interaction whatsoever with them.
To redress this unfamiliarity, the Dubai-based Lebanese filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour decided to make these labourers’ lives the subject of his latest documentary, Champ of the Camp.
His portal into their world came through the Western Union Camp Ka Champ, an annual Arab Idol-style knock-out competition, organised by Right Track Advertising, to find the best singer of Bollywood tunes among the blue-collar workers who inhabit the UAE’s labour camps.
Last year, the sixth edition of the event attracted about 2,000 entrants from almost 100 camps in Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah – all vying to win glory, fame and a sizeable cash prize.
Kaabour heard about the contest and felt it would make a fascinating topic for his third full-length feature.
His first film, Being Osama, followed six Canadian-Arabs named Osama and examined the burden of sharing their first name with Osama bin Laden in the post 9/11 world.
His follow-up effort Teta, Alf Marra (Grandma, A Thousand Times) was a poignant portrait of his own feisty, sharp-witted grandmother. Both pieces won him worldwide acclaim.
Yet, despite his renown, gaining permission to film within the labourers’ living quarters proved somewhat challenging.
It took two and half years of intense negotiations to secure the permits from the camp owners and the government.
It was the raft of negative media coverage on the supposed exploitation of workers and the squalid conditions within the UAE’s labour camps that made Kaabour understand the reluctance to allow him entry.
“Over the years there have been many western news agencies and media outlets that entered the camps illegally and filmed in a rush, then slapped a voice-over over the whole thing, painting a picture of doom,” says Kaabour.
“Most of the time they do this without even speaking to any labourers. I think that camps have become a leading instrument in the propaganda against the UAE, and not rightly so.”
Finally, after convincing the authorities that he would present an objective portrayal, he was allowed in.
So, throughout the summer of 2012, his crew trailed a number of golden-voiced hopefuls as they progressed through the heats to the final. His movie intersperses the drama and excitement of their performances with their thoughts about their lives in the UAE.
But as his interviewees’ knowledge of English and Arabic was minimal, the language barrier proved a major hindrance.
“To overcome this I had to surround myself with a team of assistant directors who speak Urdu, Hindi, Bangladeshi and Bhojpuri,” Kaabour recalls.
“Then I had to train my assistants with the questions that I wanted answered and then train them to take the interviews in different directions.”
This meant he could not control the flow of the conversations with the subjects.
“In everything I filmed, I had to go back to the editing room and wait for the subtitles to come in before I would know what the conversations in every scene were about.
“So it was an episodic approach as opposed to previous films I’ve done, where it’s me asking the questions and being inspired to ask something else based on the answer.
“It required a lot of patience. I think the results have been stellar, but it was frustrating at times.”
From his experiences, Kaabour said "some of the camps were nicer than anyone would expect. Some of them had really impressive amenities."
“I think the question of the camps is based on the issue of contrast,” he explains. “If you compare them to five-star Dubai that many people live in, the contrasts are high.
“But the contrasts are equally stark if you compare the camps to the slums or villages of India or Pakistan, where many of these labourers come from. They will tell you it’s a lot nicer here.”
He accepts that the men do suffer at times, but usually not through the travails of their workloads or the state of their accommodation.
“What was most interesting for us to discover was that the biggest hardships for these men is not physical or situational,” he explains. “It’s more the facts that they miss their families terribly and they don’t see them for years while working in the UAE.”
This is reflected in the tunes they choose to sing in the competitions. Often they opt to perform songs with lyrics about missing their homes or pining for sweethearts.
“This emotional and introspective dimension of their lives in the UAE is what the film is about – and how they express all this longing in song,” he says.
Despite his conclusions, Kaabour says he expects some overseas critics to accuse the film of being a pro-UAE, government propaganda piece, with it sanitising the harsh realities of the labourers’ lives.
Kaabour insists this is not the case.
“I’m very grateful that the government gave us permission to enter these camps. But my film is by no means funded by them. It is entirely initiated by my company, Veritas Films.”
Kaabour has almost finished post-production and a trailer for the film will premier at the British Council’s documentary series on May 14.
Soon afterwards, the producers will pitch it to film festivals across the world, hoping to gain a global audience.
Nevertheless, Kaa-bour believes it will have most resonance among moviegoers in the UAE. Before that happens, however, it must secure approval from the National Media Council.
“I really hope we get their permission,” says Eva Sayre, the film’s producer. “It would be hugely beneficial for people in this country to see it. It would be such a shame if it only got an international showing.”
Kaabour agrees, as he contends his movie will benefit all who watch it – whether at home or abroad.
“This is a truly inspiring story about other people who come to work here to support their families back home. It’s a positive story and for once it’s told by the labourers and no one else.”
The trailer for Champ of the Camp will be shown at 7pm on Tuesday as part of the British Council's documentary series at Vox Cinemas, Marina Mall, Abu Dhabi, followed by a screening of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Entry is free, but tickets are on a first-come basis. For more information, visit www.britishcouncil.org/uae
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* This article has been amended to reflect a correction. An earlier version erred in paraphrasing Mahmoud Kaabour in talking about the condition of the labour camps he filmed in.
Updated: May 12, 2013 04:00 AM