x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Film review: Champ of the Camp

The made-in-the-UAE documentary avoids falling into polemic, offering a far more human critique of camp life than the many secretly shot exposés on the market.

Champ of the Camp never loses sight of the dignity and pride of the UAE's migrant workers. Courtesy Veritas Films
Champ of the Camp never loses sight of the dignity and pride of the UAE's migrant workers. Courtesy Veritas Films

Champ of the Camp Director: Mahmoud Kaabour ⋆⋆⋆⋆

Opening in selected cinemas today, Champ of the Camp is a locally produced film with a very local flavour. The documentary follows the lives of a group of Dubai labourers who are competing in the annual Champ Ka Camp competition – a labour camp-based version of Arab Idol with prizes, pride and a return flight home up for grabs for the worker who shows the greatest knowledge, and indeed delivery, of Bollywood tracks.

With Gulf labour camps coming under close scrutiny in the global media, particularly as Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup intensify, the film could hardly be better timed. It avoids the trap of falling into polemic, however, and instead tells the very human tale of a group of dignified men who, rather than being portrayed as charity cases, are proud of their lives and work and find relief from the pain of separation from their families through song.

The audience will meet Adnan, an aluminium worker from Pakistan who worked on the Burj Khalifa; the all-singing, all-dancing Dhattu from India; and the Bangladeshi Shofi – catching a glimpse of their lives and aspirations as they compete to reach the final of the yearly bonanza, a highlight of life on the camps that has thus far escaped the attention of outsiders.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength lies in its portrayal of its protagonists without the usual judgements that attend films about labour camp life. While no one is left in any doubt that these men’s lives are not perfect, the director asks us to study the individuals rather than the economic system that has led to their situation.

Indeed, the film’s avoidance of an obvious stance on its subject matter is doubtless a major factor in the makers being allowed such unhindered access to life in the camps. The result is a film with a far more human critique of camp life than the many secretly shot exposés on the market. An audience member who doesn’t form an opinion of life on the camps would surely be a rare thing indeed, but it’s refreshing to be given the opportunity to do so without an obvious agenda from the outset. Perhaps if all the world’s burning issues were tackled in a reality TV format, we’d live in a much less angry place.

The film ends up both heartbreaking and heartwarming at once and one can only imagine the hours that must have been put in by the (non-Hindi speaking) crew to put together such a solid narrative from the hours of footage they collected as they followed our heroes from sign-up to the grand final.

Champ of the Camp already proved a crowd-pleaser when it premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December and it looks set to have a hectic 2014 on the festival circuit, too.

The cinema release offers an opportunity to see a largely overlooked slice of Dubai life outside the rarefied festival atmosphere. On the whole, it’s an opportunity worth taking.

cnewbould@thenational.ae