The documentary “Champ of the Camp” of the Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour won the Digital Studio Award in March 16 2014, after a great success in the Gulf region. Following the organization of a massive Bollywood singing competition in the labor camps of Dubai, Mahmoud Kaabour gives a voice to the thousands of migrant workers who build the city every day.
Their names are Dhattu, Adnan, Shofi. They are Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and they have one thing in common: they are part of these millions of shadows that built anonymously since the last decades, one of the most modern cities in the world, Dubai. No need to go very far to see them. Few hours in the city of lights are enough to notice these silent figures working slowly under the harsh sun of the desert.
That’s what affected the Dubai-based Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour when he first arrived in the UAE in 1989, and that’s what he tried to deal with in his last documentary “Champ of the Camp”. He has been following during four months the organization of a massive Bollywood singing competition across more than seventy labor camps on the edges of Dubai. A human and touching documentary between the x-factor style suspense and the harsh reality of labor environment.
”I wanted to give a voice to the ones who don’t speak. A face to the ones we don’t see”, he says. “I have been living in Dubai a big part of my life, and I’m still shocked that such unknown worlds exist so close to us.”
A complete portrait of this vast and isolated population who came to build the dream cities of the Arab world
Far from the ideal vision of a modern and luxurious city, Dubai shows striking inequalities. 90% of the working population are foreigners, and most of them are coming from South and South-East Asia. Every year, thousands of Indians and Pakistanis leave their country to work in the city of lights, hoping to get a better salary and to provide a better future to their families back home. The main recruiting companies pile them into huge labor camps at the edges of the city, where they live in extremely precarious conditions. Many documentaries already denounced this phenomenon. But whose fault is it exactly? Difficult to tell. “I am not trying to judge anyone, I just show the reality. Dubai is a city that has been through an incredible expansion since the last decades, relying on an ultraliberal economic system. It needs cheap labor force, and this labor force needs Dubai. Most of the documentaries stress on the Human Rights and the living conditions in the labor camps, but we have to keep in mind that for most Indian and Pakistani migrants, this situation is far better than the one they have in their original country”, he explains.
“For me, the largest hardship these men have to live is not the living conditions in the camps, but the absence from their homes and having to live away from their families. Most of them can’t see their children and wives before their whole contract is done, which means two or three years. And we can feel this emotional hardship in the way they sing. They usually sing Bollywood songs whose lyrics tell about their own story. That’s what I wanted to film.”
The main success of “Champ of the Camp” is that it managed to avoid the trap of falling into polemic. It tells the 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. A man from India who is working in Dubai to collect enough money to marry his three daughters. Another one who is proud to tell everyone that he has built the Burj Khalifa, the world’s highest tower, even if he never had the chance to climb to the top. All these men, with their dreams, their hopes, their fears, paint a complete portrait of this vast and isolated population who came to build the dream cities of the Arab world while supporting their societies and economies back home.
As the subject is particularly taboo, especially after the selection of Dubai to welcome the World Expo in 2020, film makers being allowed such unhindered access to life in the camps is really rare. It explains partly why Kaabour’s documentary avoids the most controversial parts of the labor camps system.
The cinema release should offer an opportunity to make Dubai people aware of this reality
“Champ of the Camp” already touched the audience when it premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2013, creating a buzz in the following weeks. It also recently won the Digital Studio Award, last March 16. The cinema release should offer an opportunity to see a largely overlooked slice of Dubai life outside the rarefied festival atmosphere. If the aim of Mahmoud Kaabour is not to change radically the economic and social system of the Gulf countries, he hopes at least that the documentary will make Dubai people aware of how the city they live in was made, and who are these men they pass every day without seeing. Knowledge is the beginning of tolerance and understanding. But when we ask Mahmoud Kaabour about a possible transformation of the situation, he seems very pessimistic.
“This is how the economical system works in this part of the world. As long as there will be poors and riches, the situation won’t change. But if I can’t do anything to it, I want at least people to know.”