As the first feature length movie to chronicle life inside Dubai’s labour camps premieres at DIFF, Rob Garratt talks to director Mahmoud Kaabour
If there’s one screening at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) which is attracting note and notice beyond the usual round of industry types and movie geeks, it’s the world premiere of Champ of the Camp. A documentary about a series of X-Factor-style singing competitions which take place between the workers in Dubai’s labour camps, it’s as challenging as it is unique, and promises to shed light on a segment of the emirate’s society many are curious about, but few have any real contact with.
‘Every day I see labourers working on buildings and highways, but [we] never get to interact in a public sense,’ said director Mahmoud Kaabour. ‘I wanted to bring down the invisible barriers between my life and theirs.'
It is this division which inspired the Dubai-based filmmaker to point his cameras inside 13 of the emirate's controversial labour camps, which are home to thousands of South Asian manual labourers, camped in the desert outside the high rise city they helped build.
The idea was sparked four years ago when Kaabour's producer, Eva Sayre, saw a newspaper advert for the annual Camp Ka Champ singing contest, sponsored by Western Union which the majority of labourers use to send their heard-earned wages home to families in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and beyond. To the director and his production company it offered the perfect pretext for gaining the kind of official access to the labour camps no filmmaker has had before.
‘I was interested in these people and their own narratives,’ he explains. ‘The competition also promises a lot of interesting realities – thousands of men competing and performing in front of each other – it’s a very honest piece’. Kaabour and his crew spent four months filming last summer, zeroing in on five competing labourers from across the Indian subcontinent, each with a different story to tell. The result is a piece which divides between both the action onstage, and the harsh realities of the singers’ gruelling working week. ‘Instead of the classic lifestyle sections of reality TV, which are normally at the beach or the gym, we see these guys back to life in manual labour,’ adds Kaabour.
But despite many viewers’ preconceptions about life inside the camp, the Lebanese-born director says the greatest surprises in the movie are moments of light-hearted camaraderie captured by the cameras. ‘Not all aspects of life in the camps are as sad and gritty as you might imagine,’ he says, recalling a favourite scene where one worker entertains his comrades with an a capella rendition of a Bollywood song while cooking. ‘Some things are what you expect – eight people sleeping in one room – but many of the people are there because they have a big dream,’ adds the director.
Kaabour says he welcomes any positive changes or increased awareness of Dubai’s 70-plus labour camps that come from the movie, but makes it clear the documentary is not passing judgement on the morality of the camps’ existence or standards. ‘It depends what you compare [life in the camps] to,’ the filmmaker reasons. ‘Compared to the life in Dubai you and me know, it’s very, very, drastically different. But if you compare it to slums in India, it’s a much better life’.
After premiering with two screenings at DIFF, Champ of the Camp will bring the labourers' stories to the world, with international distribution secured and interest from festivals across the globe. There are also plans for a full theatrical release in the UAE, and we can expect to see it on DVD regionally by the end of 2014. ‘I want it to be seen by as many people as possible,’ says Kaabour simply. ‘People will have a more rounded experience of life in the UAE by seeing this film, and understand how this became the city of the future.’
It’s not the first time the filmmaker has dealt with the social impact of a political subject. His debut feature, Being Osama, saw Kaabour follow the lives of six men for 18 months who shared Ossama Bin Laden’s first name, and were living in Montreal in the aftermath of 9/11. His inspiration? Being fired from a video store in the city for refusing to shorten his own first name to ‘Mo’. It was after that movie received a glowing reception at DIFF in 2005 that Kaabour decided to move back to the country where he studied high school, and now still resides in Dubai today. ‘I wouldn’t call [my movies] political,’ says the filmmaker. ‘They look at the social implications of a political paradigm – they look at people more than anything.’ Champ of the Camp is Kaabour’s third feature, following the equally well-received 2010 portrait of his grandmother Teta, Alf Marra, but after touring the festival circuit with Champ the 34-year-old plans to take a break from filmmaking, and emigrate to take an art residency at a European museum for a year. ‘I’m tired,’ he said. ‘I want some time to read, to write and to talk with other artists... to come back with something bigger, better and more mature.’
And what of the labourers themselves? Many of the film’s accidental stars will be present at the free and public world premiere, hosted at Burj Park on Saturday October 7 in the shadows of the Burj Khalifa, which one of the main protagonists significantly helped build. ‘It will be very meaningful for him to see his story in that context,’ says Kaabour.
And meanwhile life in the camps continues, and Camp Ka Champ will roll on: The first competition seven years ago had just 30 entrants, three years later that number had risen to 3,000. Last year’s contest – the subject of the documentary – had 7,000 singers, this year’s 10,000. Is there any chance of any of these young singers actually making it, of an X-Factor-style star emerging from the army of hopeful labourers?
‘Many of these guys can’t sing,’ admits Kaabour, ‘but once in a while, you come across one singer and will be charmed beyond words. But it is not just about singing – [my] film [is] about more than that.
‘It’s a cross section of what it means to be a labourer in Dubai... the circumstances, the social context... a sense of what it is like to be living for life back home. It’s an honest portrayal that I hope will be part of the history of the region and how it’s grown. This is the narrative of thousands of men who left their homes, to fly here, and help it grow.’ Champ of the Camp will premiere at Burj Park, Downtown Dubai, as part of DIFF’s ‘Screen on the Green’ programme, on Saturday December 7 at 8pm. There will be a second screening at Vox Cinemas, Mall of the Emirates, on Monday December 9 at 3.15pm. For more information and tickets see www.diff.ae.
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sheetanshu bhushan bajpai Feb 22, 2014 02:25 pm
most of the labour worked in gulf countries are in poor conditions and facing a lot of problems.this documentary shows the difficulties of the workers and the programme arranged in dubai was a great act to give him some movements of pleasure.