x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Champ of the Camp reaches UAE cinemas this weekend

Mahmoud Kaabour talks about his documentary Champ of the Camp, the first locally-made documentary to achieve a full UAE cinema release. Watch the trailer here.

Chandrama is crowned as the 2012 Champ of the Camp. Courtesy Veritas Films
Chandrama is crowned as the 2012 Champ of the Camp. Courtesy Veritas Films
Dubai loves a first, so on that basis alone the filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour’s Champ of the Camp – which follows a group of Dubai labourers in an inter-camp singing competition – should set box offices alight when it goes on general release this weekend.

As soon as the film went into production, it laid claim to the title of the first feature in the Gulf to be shot entirely in 5.1 surround sound. Then, in December, around 1,500 people crammed into Burj Park as part of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) to witness the world premiere – the first outdoor screening of a film at the Burj Khalifa. Now, the film is to be shown at seven screens across the UAE, making it the first locally produced feature documentary to achieve a full cinema release.

Kaabour is in no doubt that the DIFF screening has played a huge part in generating the buzz surrounding the film. “The press really picked up on that and it was full to capacity, with people even sitting outside the green, beyond the sound system’s range, just reading the subtitles. Some of the labourers from the film came on stage to sing afterwards to a massive standing ovation and the blogosphere went crazy afterwards,” he says.

“We were picked up by the BBC, The Guardian, Vice. With so much buzz, we knew we had a chance of nailing a theatrical release. We’d been talking to the distributor Phars Film from the start and they’d loved the preview screening, but were fairly non-committal as they don’t normally take documentaries.”

Luckily for Kaabour and his team, Phars was at DIFF too, and after the success of the Burj screening its stance softened. “They were blown away by the response,” says Kaabour. “And they gave us a seven-screen opening plus marketing through their media partner, eMatterz.”

The cinema release is still far from a golden ticket – on top of the film’s US$350,000 (Dh1.3 million) budget, the production team are now responsible for raising the cash for advertising and exhibition materials themselves. To help with this, Kaabour has gone to the crowdfunding website Aflamnah – and his campaign has so far raised more than $10,000.

“The promotion isn’t cheap, but it has to be done,” says Kaabour. “Without advertising, no one will know it’s in cinemas, no one will go and see it and it’ll quickly be replaced by the latest from Hollywood or Bollywood.”

He continues: “We’ve already raised $10K, which is enough for the basic advertising, although we’re discussing a couple more amazing donations. We’ll certainly be able to undertake a basic campaign in the press and on social media, but in an ideal world we’ll have ads on taxis all around town, too.”

While Kaabour would clearly love to see Dubai festooned with Champ of the Camp promotional materials, he is at the same time aware of the need to be realistic. “You do have to be careful not to over-advertise to the point where you spend more than you ever stand to make,” he says. “Up until three months ago, we thought we’d never make the money back on the film, but Eva [Sayre, the producer] negotiated a deal where she kept the Middle Eastern distribution rights, so we earn 100 per cent of the profits on the theatre release and any other revenues in this region. We’re not going to be rich, but over time we may eventually make our money back on the film.”

The key factor in that, of course, will be whether audiences turn out, so I ask Kaabour why he thinks anyone should choose his film over the latest explosion-stuffed Hollywood romp this weekend.

“The film sheds light on an aspect of living here that many have simply not been exposed to before. That makes one’s experience of Dubai and the Gulf at large more rounded,” he says.

“The film also appeals to Bollywood fans as it features some of the most popular songs performed in a heartfelt way by people who build and cut glass by day and sing by night.”

He adds: “It’s a piece of the region’s history told from a completely different angle. Success here is usually attributed to the people who made the decision to build or paid for the development. Suddenly here we have these guys with nothing, claiming things like the Burj Khalifa as their own. It’s just a really human story.

“The audience gets to meet a really dignified bunch of guys who don’t feel that they are in need, but they suffer so much because they miss their families and don’t see their children grow up. It’s not a confrontational film at all, but it shows that life in a realistic way. It’s a side of life here that a lot of people are interested in and this is a rare chance to learn about it.”

• Champ of the Camp is out ­tomorrow in select UAE cinemas