By Badar Salem
From poor living conditions to long working hours and low wages, labourers in the UAE are often at the end of negative publicity. However, a new documentary  by the Dubai-based, Lebanese filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour tries to shed a different light on labourers’ lives in the country.
Given the sensitivity of this topic in the UAE – which is repeatedly criticised by rights groups for its treatment of foreign workers – Kaabour, who’s also the managing director of UAE-based Veritas Films , had difficulties obtaining permission to film in some of the UAE labour camps.
“After two years of negotiations, I got the necessary permission to film in 12 labour camps in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” says the 33-year-old filmmaker. Asked if he faced any restrictions while filming inside the camps, some of which lack basic services, Kaabour stressed that there was none. He further explains that he only shot in the camps that played host to the singing competitions – considered to be amongst the best labour camps in the country. “Of course, don’t expect five star camps; you still have eight people per room,” he adds.
With the competitions taking place during the hottest months of the year – June to October, when temperatures often reach above 48°C (120°F) – Kaabour and his team came very close to what life in the camp actually looks and feels like.
“As you would imagine, spending four months in the labour camps, you start to see life differently. Life has changed forever for me, it’s been a transformational experience,” he says.
For Kaabour, shooting long hours in high temperatures – some of his crew members passed out – “is a small price to pay to shatter some stereotypes of these labour camps.”
“For example, not everyone who lives in the camps is a construction worker. We filmed welders, carpenters, and AC repairmen,” explains Kaabour. “And those who live in the labour camps are not necessarily poor. While many would think that the only way they can help them is by donating money, I’d say that by giving them a chance to sing, to talk about music, you might actually make their day.”
As they sing their hearts out, Kaabour goes deeper into the lives of UAE labourers, who are described in his film trailer as “unsung heroes.” He soon realises that for many, the greatest toll on them is the “emotional toll, rather than the physical one.”
“Most of the songs they choose to sing are about families, love, weddings, in addition to ultra-cheesy Bollywood songs,” Kaabour says noting that the film offers an array of sub-continental languages and they allow contestants to express their feelings in their own language.
“I really think that a couple of guys are going to become stars. I promise you, they’re mad, and they have great stories,” he says passionately. For him, “Champ of the Camp” is a story told entirely by the labourers themselves, and that’s why he chose not to have a voice over. “We don’t put words in anyone’s mouth,” he stresses.
The Lebanese filmmaker is best known for his most celebrated documentary “Teta, Alf Marra” (Grandma, A Thousand Times). The film scooped six major audience awards and a best film award on the world festival circuit, as well as reaching the Oscars selection panel. His first documentary “Being Osama,” which explored the lives of six Canadian-Arabs, named Osama in the post 9/11 events, also won several international prizes.
Determined to take his film to the next level, Kaabour used two camera units and 5.1 surround sound audio systems – a rather expensive technique for independent documentary films – to capture the true image and sound of the camps. He also decided to go for the first class British editor and BAFTA-winner Alan Mackay to edit and shape up his film.
“With these techniques we’ll be able to take the viewer deep inside the camp through both the image and the sound. The only thing missing is probably the smell of the place, but really, we’ll get you that close,” he assures.
As for funding, Kaabour, who says he spent his entire life savings on making this film, notes that he has recently got two grants from Doha Film Institute and Screen Institute in Beirut.
While Kaabour hopes his film will be seen as a message of the triumph of the will, others might find it hard not to disagree, given labourers’ harsh realities in the UAE. Just last month, thousands of workers at UAE construction Arabtec (which built Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower) went on a four-day strike demanding a wage hike of about $50 per month – most of which earn $102-$325 per month. As strikes are banned in the UAE and trade unions don’t exist, the Emirate's police chief responded by announcing that 200 of the striking workers would be repatriated.
“No one can claim that ‘Champ of the Camp’ is a pro or anti UAE film. It’s a truly objective piece, with a truly international theme,” insists Kaabour. “We showed reality as we came across it while filming for four months in the labour camps and it’s up for the audience to make their own conclusions.”
“’Champ of the Camp’ offers a much needed window into the lives of the UAE labourers who live so close to us,” he concludes. “They’re building what we live in, they’re the ones who make our life possible, and we at Veritas Films have always believed that such a tribute to them is way overdue."