Loss and Laughter in Dubai’s Labour Camps

Posted on March 1, 2014


As written for The Platform (March 01, 2014)

Mahmoud Kaabour explains how his new docu-film, Champ of the Camp, delves deeply into Dubai’s notorious camps to expose feelings of pain and yearning 

22 Champ

We just separated only yesterday
But how will I live in this condition for ages
Death didn’t come, but why have your memories come
Oh long separation

With the towering skyscrapers of Dubai glinting in the backdrop to the opening scene of Champ of the Camp, these poignant lyrics of Bollywood classic ‘Lumbi Judaai’ (A Long Separation) are sung with fervour by the protagonists, cementing the theme of longing that director Mahmoud Kaabour hopes to achieve.

Named after the X-Factor-esque intra-labour camp singing and trivia competition, initiated as respite for the UAE’s migrant workers from a hard day’s labour, the docu-film chronicles the progress of four contestants, all of whom have their own heartbreaking story to tell. Chirpy Dhattu from Hyderabad toils hard to save up for the dowries of his three daughters. Shofi’s parents sold their land in Bangladesh in order to be able to send him to Dubai. Rajesh, the bachelor, breaks down at the thought of him being away if “anything were to happen to my parents”. Adnan from Pakistan may have helped construct the Burj Khalifa, but admits to little appreciation for the grandiose structure until he can have his wife with him to show it off to.

Behind the camera however, is a Beirut-born, UAE-raised filmmaker who is no stranger to unorthodox cinema. Kaabour’s previous documentaries, Being Osama, a story of five Montreal namesakes of the most wanted man in the west, and Teta, Alf Marra (Grandma, A Thousand Times), about a feisty Beiruti grandmother, have both reeled in (pun intended) their share of awards, the latter even qualifying for entry into the Academy Awards.

So why Champ of the Camp?

“Besides a brief stint working alongside some of these workers as a teenager, I’ve always felt that the labour community is under-credited in this part of the world, and that all success stories of construction and development are always told from the point of view of the corporations and governments. I thought that it’s only right to give credit as well, to the men who leave their families behind to come and make this possible for us.”

Though critics may expect Champ of the Camp to serve as ready fuel to the fire of many a controversy surrounding the human rights violations oft-synonymous with the blue-collar labour accommodations of the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries, Kaabour is quick to douse the smoke.

34 Champ crew“This film never had a political agenda. From inception, what we wanted was to document the singing competition, and whatever we came across during filming was what was going to be portrayed in the film. In this way, the audience is allowed to form their own impressions of what goes on in these camps, through the portal we offer into what is usually confined behind high walls. This to me is quite crucial, as most of the stories we’ve seen before are politically pre-conceived. So rather than focusing on the material aspects of living here and the comforts (or lack thereof) of the labour camps, I wanted to show the potentially greater discomfort of longing for family, and how much this sense of separation is constant and affects every aspect of their lives, and how it makes singing the songs they sing a lot more meaningful.”

Scenes flit between nail-biting elimination rounds and tearful, as well as entertaining, scenes of life in communal accommodation for the men, all who have been involved in the building of the city of reckless dreaming – to fulfil their own dreams of providing a better life for the loved ones they’ve left behind.

That this unscripted reality show parody, cum musical, cum documentary is narrated using voiceovers in Hindi – the lingua-franca of the sub-continent – means more room is left for the tugging of heartstrings and any semblance of apathy is staved off. For Kaabour credits even the song choices to those of the characters in the film: melancholic numbers for moments of heartache, and more upbeat, dance-ditties for when the mood is lighter.

Although now nearly five years since inception, basking in acclaim from the likes of The GuardianCNN and Variety, with plans for screenings across international waters, Kaabour’s journey has been as arduous as the summer days in the United Arab Emirates are long.

“It took me three whole years just to get the necessary permits from the government entities and companies who owned the camps in order to be able to film on location. My agenda wasn’t in question, but I did want full access for months on end. I didn’t want to get in like most western journalists do, shoot for 20 minutes and get out and tell the world their story.

“Having said that, it is obvious from the film that this competition takes place in comparatively good camps where the companies actually care for the well-being of their workers, enough to allow this form of entertainment. We’ve filmed in 13 camps across the country, but this is by no means an average of what labour camps are like across the country.”

Although the worker residences represented in the film are a far-cry from what most news reports portray, the men still do share a living space of eight to a room, endure long hours of backbreaking drudgery, and just about manage to make ends meet on meagre salaries. This image is so vivid that the selfless rush of euphoria these men claim to feel on sending large portions of their earnings “back home” is near unfathomable.

Steering clear of what Kaabour considers to be a clichéd agenda did prove to be a perceptive decision however, for the viewer’s emotional bias is duly directed towards respect – a sentiment long overdue in a metropolis where the wage divide is often too vast for both segments of society to connect.

The Champ of the Camp journey culminates with a winner being chosen and awarded prize-money of AED10,000 (£1630), a large flat-screen television and a return flight home.

Kaabour’s coronation however, was at the film’s open-air premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2013. More specifically, at the end of the screening, when the 1500-strong crowd stood in tribute to applaud the moment the lead characters took to the stage from out of the shadows of the towers they built – as men to be lauded and not just pitied.

Champ of the Camp Official Poster