Champ of the Camp: Dubai Review

Though far from a searing exposé, an entertaining doc on an annual song competition offers revealing glimpses into the lives of the South Asian work force who build the Emirates' dream cities 

Award-winning Lebanese documaker Mahmoud Kaabour finds an entertainment angle in the first feature-length study of life in the UAE labor camps.

The paradise of the Emirates has never seemed to extend to the Asian labor force that is hired to “build the dream cities of the Arab world” at paltry wages, even if the pay is advantageous compared to what is available on their home turf. The living conditions in workers’ camps continue to be an officially sensitive subject, making  Champ of the Camp all the more interesting as the first feature-length doc to approach the subject. One of the first films to get permission to shoot in the camps, it is however very careful what it says and shows. Director Mahmoud Kaabour and producer Eva Sayre’s winning strategy is to center the film around an annual songfest competition open to workers living in 70 camps around the Emirates. This adds a note of humor to their touching stories, leaving viewers both entertained and somewhat wiser about what it means to leave family and home behind to earn a living in a searing desert land. This, and the credentials of Lebanese-born Kaabour (Being Osama, Grandma A Thousand Times), should give the film a good chance to circulate internationally.

Though there are undoubtedly far more painful stories to tell from the camps, the mass excitement generated by the Western Union Champ of the Camp songfest (now in its seventh year) offers viewers a first, offbeat window on an unknown world. Thousands of workers from 70 different labor camps scattered across the Emirate principalities are shown auditioning at talent searches, which speed through quarter finals and semi-finals until six finalists remain.  Under the able refereeing of local singer Shabana, they not only sing but have to instantly recognize the opening notes of Bollywood songs.

Amusingly, most of the men hail from the Indian subcontinent and know these popular films and songs by heart. Shahrukh Khan is a fave of the younger generation, while a contestant named Dattu favors Amitabh Bachchan and Raj Kapoor. Auditions are filmed in a gaudy pop style of Indian cable TV, punctuated by snatches of Hindi movies excerpts, and culminates in Shabana’s performance of the farcically sizzling number “My Name Is Sheila” from the Hindi  blockbuster Tees Mahr Khan, which sends the men into ecstasy. 

Edited into all this fun are the contestants’ everyday lives. Mechanics, plumbers, sweepers and construction workers live in plain concrete buildings eight to a room, furnished with bunk beds and one small cabinet houses for their private possessions. No one is shown complaining, though “It does feel a little like jail,” laughs one man, and it isn’t hard to see why. Talking about their hardships and the touching sacrifices they make for their families back home is Ms. Rupa Vinod, the right-on managing director of competition organizer Right Track Advertising.

Kaabour portrays the men as individuals who are eager, laughing competitors, but their haunting eyes more than once glisten with tears of homesickness. Many have been away from their loved ones in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh for more than two years. Dattu has been in Dubai for six years; he receives $272 a month in wages and he gave the agency $2,340 to bring him over. A boy who longs for his mother cries on camera saying “I am helpless, I have to be here.” But it feels great to send home $140, making a month’s sweat-drenched work worth it.  Chandrama, a plumber, talks about how good it felt to build Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in a record three years. Adnan, another finalist, saves up to build a house in Pakistan while others just send money home via Western Union (the main sponsor of the singing contest) to pay for their kids’ tuition.

Song is a dream world for all of them, and the film makes good use of the contrast to round out their lives.  Though lensing has some rough on-site edges, the scenes are full of expressive visuals and quirky camera angles.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Arabian Nights)
Production companies: Veritas Films in association with Creative Kettle, Doha Film Institute, Screen Institute Beirut
Director/Screenwriter: Mahmoud Kaabour
Producer: Eva Sayre
Director of photography: Benjamin Pritchard
Editors: Alan Mackay, Arwa Merchant
Music: Ahmed Ghannoum
No rating, 75 minutes