Inside Champ of the Camp

The first feature length documentary shot inside Dubai's labour camps

Inside Champ of the Camp
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Inside Champ of the Camp Image #3

The first feature length movie to chronicle life inside Dubai’s labour camps gets a general release at UAE cinemas this week on the back of its success at DIFF 2013. Rob Garratt talks to the film’s director Mahmoud Kaabour.

The most talked-about moment at December’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) wasn’t Cate Blanchett’s walk down the red carpet. Nor was it Martin Sheen’s Lifetime Achievement award, or Naomie Harris’ moving memorial speech to Nelson Mandela. It was the moment a handful of construction workers took to a small stage in Downtown Dubai, in the shadows of the Burj Khalifa some of them helped build, and broke out into impromptu a capella song in front of more than 1,000 people.

The performances came following the world premiere of Champ of the Camp, a groundbreaking documentary that went inside Dubai’s labour camps to profile Camp Ka Champ, an X-Factor-meets-Bollywood competition which attracts more than 10,000 entrants annually. The film zeroes in on the dreams, trials and daily lives of a few hopeful competitors, and after their stories were magnified on Burj Park’s temporary big screen, some of the featured labourers were invited to the stage, met by rapturous applause (and in some cases even tears). Forget Blanchett and Sheen – these men were the true stars of DIFF 2013.

More used to sharing eight-bed dorms on the fringes of Dubai, these singers would never have found themselves in the centre of the city performing to hundreds without the efforts of Mahmoud Kaabour. ‘It was just an amazing night,’ says the Dubai-based filmmaker. ‘I’ve never seen or heard of a documentary premiere which has attracted hundreds of people. A really incredible thing happened... a social reconnection between the labour community and the public at large – it’s a night which will go down in the history of the city.’

It was the ‘invisible barriers’ between these two communities which Kaabour hoped to capture when last summer he ventured inside 13 of Dubai’s 70-plus labour camps, which are home to tens of thousands of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and beyond. The camps had been on the 34-year-old’s mind for years, but it was the Western Union-sponsored singing contest which offered both the creative spark and the perfect opportunity to gain permits to film inside the camps. What Kaabour perhaps couldn’t predict was the enthusiasm with which the project would be embraced by the emirate.

Following a Dhs275,000 fundraising campaign to pay for promotions Champ of the Camp has achieved general cinematic release in the UAE, screening from Thursday January 30. Next the filmmaker will target the wider GCC audience, and then festivals and cinemas worldwide, something which looks easier all the time following high profile reports on the BBC and CNN, and coverage worldwide from the UK’s The Guardian to the USA’s Variety and Hollywood Reporter. The documentary also recently screened to the International Labour Organization, a UN body which promotes internationally recognised labour rights, where Kaabour gave a keynote speech to delegates in Jordan. ‘It’s being seen beyond just an art piece,’ adds the filmmaker, ‘which means the film is doing its job.’

But despite the preconceptions many viewers might have about life inside the camps, much of the movie is warm and humorous, everyday 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,’ Kaabour adds. ‘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. 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’.

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 spend 18 months following the lives of six Montreal men, all of whom shared Ossama Bin Laden’s first name, 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, founding his own production company Veritas Films.

While this week hundreds will flock to cinemas, life in camps will roll on. But more than its commercial success, Kaabour hopes the film will do something to change perceptions, exposing the UAE audience to the realities of life lived on the fringes of society, and offering international food for thought towards the ever-sensitive topic of labour camps, which command the limelight more than ever as preparations begin for the Doha 2022 World Cup.

‘[This film] is a cross section of what it means to be a labourer in Dubai,’ adds Kaabour. ‘It’s an honest portrayal that I hope will be part of the history of the region: This is the narrative of thousands of men who left their homes, to fly here, and help it grow.

‘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.’

Champ of the Camp is in cinemas from Thursday January 30.

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