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Making a musical of migrant labor
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DUBAI: The camera is mounted in an automobile driving through Dubai’s Jumeira neighborhood. Looming on the horizon over this low-rise residential district is Burj al-Arab, by now one of the more iconic structures on the city’s skyline. The scene cuts and the frame descends upon the white Burj, resplendent in the distance. In the foreground, profile to the camera so that he appears to be facing the structure to his left, a gentleman of South Asian heritage stands in laborer’s coveralls, belting out a Hindi torch song.

“We separated only yesterday,” he gestures, “but how will I live in this state for years?” As he completes the line he fades, as if into the aether, leaving Burj al-Arab alone.

Standing against a different patch of the Dubai skyline, a second man takes up this song of separation and yearning before himself being erased from the frame. A third man picks up the tune and departs, as the sound of jackhammers and construction seeps in to compete with their song.

So commences “Champ of the Camp,” the feature-length documentary debut of Mahmoud Kaabour. The work just had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival, screening in the festival’s Arabian Nights section.

DIFF set the world premiere in Burj Park, a patch of brand-new green space in the foothills of Burj Khalifa, which may still be the world’s tallest free-standing structure.

The delicious incongruity of the setting stemmed from the fact that “Camp” documents the eponymous Bollywood song and trivia contest held yearly in 70 of the UAE’s labor camps. These house South Asian “guest workers,” armies of which were deployed to erect Burj Khalifa.

Burj Park’s genteel ambit provided one of the film’s locations. The only thing that could have improved the evening projection was if the enthusiastic audience had included a busload or two of guest workers.

The first half of “Camp” introduces its principal characters – Dhattu, Adnan, Rajesh and Zakir. Shot in select camps in Dubai and Abu Dhabi during Champ of the Camp auditions, these sequences set the contestants in the context of their living accommodations.

Characters are shown getting haircuts in the afternoon heat and cooking in their sweltering communal kitchen.

Men talk about their favorite Bollywood vocalists – Adnan admires Sharrukh Khan, while Dhattu prefers Amitabh Bachchan. They also discuss their lives as migrant laborers.

Shofi, at this time working as a day laborer, says the Bangladeshi company that got him to the UAE charged him a fee of $2,340.

“It’s nice here,” Dhattu says. “We all get along fine, though it does feel a bit like a prison.”

“It’s our choice,” says Adnan, who works in an aluminium factory. “No one keeps us here by force.”

Migrant workers remit their wages to their families. A street sweeper, Dhattu makes about $272 a month, which goes to support his wife and three daughters in India. After seven years in the UAE, Adnan’s remitted enough to build a house for his wife in Pakistan.

The camps also provide locations for the characters’ performances, whose lyrics echo a longing for home.

“You who’ve gone abroad and never returned home ... / You have earned a lot of money ... / Break the cage and come home, / Come home while you’re still young.”

The film joins the competition at the quarterfinal round, and so effectively focuses on 13 UAE camps.

It is natural for documentary film to speak to power. Image-conscious as they are, states and big businesses tend to be sensitive about how they are represented and play a double game of limiting unvetted independent access while employing public relations firms to narrate their work in sympathetic terms.

To secure access, documentary filmmakers must compromise. Sometimes that means altering a film’s narrative trajectory. That’s one reason whistle-blowers like WikiLeaks are now speaking to power in a more effective, unfettered manner than documentary filmmakers. It also explains the present living arrangements of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning.

It is useful to remember this when comparing “Champ of the Camp” to other cultural production inspired by Gulf migrant labor.

Take “52 Weeks,” a year-long campaign of weekly interventions that commenced in October. It sees international artists, writers, and activists contribute a work relating to “unjust living and working conditions of migrant laborers building cultural institutions in Abu Dhabi.”

To date, all “52 Weeks” contributors have resided outside the UAE. Insofar as Veritas Films, the company Kaabour founded with his producer and partner Eva Sayre, is based in Dubai, his doc is local.

From the sidelines of DIFF, Sayre and Kaabour discussed their efforts to balance access, veracity and a future in the UAE.

“We faced obstacles from day one, ...” Sayre recalls. “With approvals in particular it was a particularly long and obscure process ... It went on for over two years, and involved half a dozen different entities ...”

“There were a couple of camps we knew we couldn’t get access to,” Kaabour recalls, “so we had to isolate those participants, but there’s always the risk that it’s one of those guys who will win. You have to find creative ways around that.”

Sayre says the profile of Veritas’ past work probably helped secure permission to shoot.

“We had to trust them to recognize that we’re not political filmmakers ... We’re known for emotional docs that are based on human stories ... We just focused on the human aspect of the story. This is a way to satisfy the curiosity of the West while focusing on the human dignity of these workers. You’re showing them at their best.

“We tried to emphasize that we’re based here. We understand the way things work here. We’re not trying to get ourselves kicked out. We’ve done a lot of work with governments. Our businesses are here. Our lives are here ...”

She said the state would have liked to have some editorial oversight, but that she and Kaabour simply denied it.

“We answered every question” the state asked of us, Kaabour recalls. “It was nerve-wracking. I never had any doubts about what I was filming. But in this part of the world, you know, if you inadvertently piss somebody off, it will change the perception of what it is you’re doing. So we hoped we wouldn’t have to leave ...

“I’m pleased that they like it. But I can’t help but wonder what this means about how it’s going to be seen elsewhere. Are people in the West gonna think that because DIFF picked up this film that the Dubai government is gonna see this as promotion? Are people gonna think that we glossed over the camps and that’s why it got picked up here? Maybe.

“Some people [are] more attached to their preconceptions of the camps, though they haven’t been in them. And we haven’t heard of anybody else who’s been in the camps for four months.

“The West cannot continue to applaud the achievements of the Gulf economies and in the same breath condemn the labor camps,” he concluded. “It’s this that leads to that. The obsessive isolation of this topic as a human rights issue that is not wedded to a boycott of these economies is simply dishonest.”

“Camp” is at once local and not. Kaabour is an expatriate Lebanese who moved to the UAE with his family when he was 10. He recalls how, as a teenager, he held a summer job in Sharjah and daily ate a carb-heavy lunch with the laborers there.

“The paradigm that applies [to the Gulf’s migrant laborers applies] to us,” he says. “We’re all laborers in this country.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 20, 2013, on page 16.
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