Director Mahmoud Kaabour couldn’t have asked for a better location to premiere his latest film: At the foot of the Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai.
His documentary film, Champ of the Camp, which follows the lives of the UAE construction workers as they compete for a Bollywood style singing competition, will be shown for the first time at the Burj Park on December 7 as part of the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff).
“I am beyond vindicated that Diff has accepted this film, and so glad it’s going to be screened against the Burj Khalifa, which is probably the largest monument ever built by labourers,” says the award-winning Lebanese director, known for films such as Being Osama (2004) and Teta, Alf Marra (Grandma, a Thousand Times) in 2010.
In the 75-minute Champ of the Camp, Kaabour documents the lives of hundreds of workers from accomodations across the UAE as they compete for glory in an X Factor-style sing-off.
Spread across four months, the film follows them as they take part in auditions, singing well-known Bollywood tunes and competing in trivias. Some are knocked out and some progress to the next round, just like in the hit reality TV singing show.
Only here, instead of going back to posh hotel rooms like the TV show contestants, they head back to their accomodations, far away from the glitzy towers they build, and try to get on with their lives.
Kaabour, who came up with the idea for the film after reading about the contest in a newspaper, says he was very careful not to make a spectacle of his subjects and their lives, or to moralise.
“That’s why we wanted them to tell their own stories. There are no voice-overs. It’s just them, in their own voice, taking us into their daily lives,” he explains. “In all the press coverages and stories about their lives, people are always speaking on their behalf. This is their stories in their own voices.”
The idea was also a personal one for Kaabour, whose parents moved from Lebanon to the UAE in 1989.
“When I was still in school, I got a summer job in a Sharjah printing company and I got to be really close to the labour community, eating my lunch with them in one of the cafeterias. In the following 20 years, my life in the UAE has never furnished the same proximity to the community.
“I often wondered why we never talk or interact with them when there are thousands of them and why we know nothing about the larger community that live here and whose work has made Dubai what it is.”
The singing contest is but one layer of the film, says Kaabour, who was granted unfettered access into 13 worker accommodations across Dubai.
“Beyond the façade of these massive buildings and high-rises, there are these places that house thousands of men and men only. There is a deep emotional and internal dimension to these places. The men who live there are in an emotional location, where they are constantly longing for home. That longing tinges their singing, their living.”
That human element is universal, says Kaabour, who, besides pouring his life’s savings into its funding, saw the film become a very personal one.
“During the filming, my daughter was born. And with all the joy I felt, here I was, talking to these people, who have not seen their children in two or three years, who wait eagerly for that letter from home, that phone call. These are feelings anyone will associate with ... and something I hope will break down the invisible barriers that divide us.”
But Champ of the Camp is not all dark and gloomy. It’s also funny, and ultimately hopeful.
“From a man doing an impression of Amitabh Bachchan [the Indian acting legend] in the middle of the courtyard at a camp, or a man breaking into a hilarious song about what his father would want him to be while he’s making an omelette with 50 others around him making their food, there was no dearth of those moments,” he says.
“Just to see them competing — people who make it, people who don’t, it can be all quite humorous and uplifting.
“Also, as we talk to these men, you will find out that many of them are so proud of the projects they’ve worked on, the buildings they’ve help build,” he says.
“There’s a touching scene in the film where we take one worker back to the Burj Khalifa. He’s never seen the finished building and didn’t really know the icon he was helping to build while he was at the site.”
Getting the film off the ground was not easy, due to the sensitivity of the subject, says Kaabour.
“It took us three years to get the required permits. Our first success story was to find ourselves on location on the first shooting day,” he says.
His four assistant directors served as translators since the subjects mostly spoke Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri and Bengali, languages Kaabour does not speak.
“I trained them with the questions I wanted to ask. It took longer than, say, when I film in a language I understand. But it was all worth the patience.”
Kaabour, who is also the founder and managing director of Dubai-based production company Veritas Films, says he hopes his film will be a tip of the iceberg as far as reaching out to one section of the UAE community is concerned.
“You don’t have to bear gifts and bring donations. All they need is acceptance and the realisation that, just like the CEOs and big shots who take the big decisions to help this city move forward, they are a crucial part of this society,” he says.
“I hope the film will build that bridge, and encourage people to get to know them and see that invisible barrier shrink more and more every day.”
Champ of the Camp will have its world premiere at Screen on the Green on December 7 at 8pm, at the Burj Park in Downtown Dubai. Entry is free. The film will also be screened at Vox 12, Mall of the Emirates on December 9 at 3.15pm. For tickets, go to Dubaifilmfest.com