Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour’s Camp ka Champ provides a rare insight into life in the labour camps of Dubai, following the fortunes of a group of migrant workers taking part in a Bollywood singing competition. The film has received praise from critics for its portrayal of the emotional lives of the men who build Dubai's skyscrapers. But Kaabour has also polarized opinion by deliberately choosing not to use the film to comment on the issue of human rights abuses of migrant construction workers in the Gulf.
Migrant Rights had the opportunity to see the film’s second-ever screening at Panos and the ILO’s Inter-Regional Media Consultation at the Dead Sea in Jordan earlier this month, following its debut at the Dubai International Film Festival in December. Camp ka Champ provoked laughter and the odd tear from an audience of hardened journalists in Jordan, but raised some tough questions about the ethics of the Gulf's controversial labour camps.
The film opens with a montage of South Asian construction workers singing the song ‘Lambi Judai’, unaccompanied, against the backdrop of construction sites and desert. The popular 1980’s song from the Bollywood movie Hero tells of longing for a lover, and the pain of a lengthy separation. This, it emerges, is a sentiment close to the hearts of the workers in the film. Many of struggle on a daily basis with the mental strain of being away from family members while earning money working as builders, plumbers and unskilled labourers in Dubai’s construction sites. Visits home are far and few between, and most will go for spells of two or three years without seeing spouses, children and other family members.
Singing is an emotional release for many of the workers that feature in the film. The Bollywood singing contest, an annual event organised by money transfer service, Western Union, provides a welcome diversion for camp residents after long days of hard, physical labour:
“When I sing with my friends, I don’t miss home so much” said Zakir Hussein, from Pakistan.
The young men in the film come from all across the Subcontinent, and are drawn from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds. However, they all have one thing in common: they’ve come to Dubai with the hope that their hard graft can earn them enough money to send back home in order to build a more prosperous life for their families.
Some, like Adnan, from Pakistan, dream of building a house for their family, while others, such as Dhattu, from India, are saving to marry off their daughters.
Shofi, a softly-spoken young man from Bangladesh, is working hard to remit money to his family, but fights back tears when he talks about how much he misses home.
Kaabour’s film has no voice-overs. The protagonists speak for themselves, and their personalities emerge: the philosopher, the stoic, the joker, the romantic, the pragmatist.
The natural humour and day-to-banter of the camp residents comes through strongly in the film; at one point, a competitor in the early rounds of the contest is seen dressed in women's clothing, performing a bawdy parody of 'Ooh La La', an item song from the Bollywood movie The Dirty Picture.
The camps in the film are a far cry from the reports of the squalid and filthy conditions that have been exposed in some media reports. There are no obvious signs of abuse or poor sanitation, and the inhabitants are relatively cheery.
But they are certainly not palaces. The workers sleep in bunk beds in dormitories and cook sparse meals in the communal kitchens, saving every penny to send back to home.
“It’s not so bad here, but sometimes I feel like I have no life” admits one labourer.
Kaabour is a long-term resident of UAE, and is unapologetic about the fact that his film makes no attempt to critique or pass moral judgement on the country for its use of low-paid migrant labour to raise its skyscrapers. Instead, he sees his role as providing as neutral as possible an insight into daily life in the camps.
"I often refer back to the quote by the film producer Robert Evans: 'there are three sides to every story, your side, my side, and the truth. And no-one is lying'" he tells Migrant Rights.
Kaabour tells Migrant Rights he did not want the film to be 'anti-UAE' in any way and says that he takes issue with some of the critiques of the Gulf leveled by foreign journalists in recent years:
"I don't think it's entirely reasonable for journalists from privileged backgrounds to compare the conditions of migrant workers in the labour camps in the Gulf to those in their home countries. Without naming names, a lot of foreign journalists come and take a look at the camps, maybe sneaking in without permission, and then write a story without even speaking to any of the residents” he says.
Kaabour's implication seems to be that the situation for migrant construction workers in the Gulf aren't so bad after all. However, the audience at the Dead Sea screening were not so easily swayed. The conditions in the camps featured in Camp ka Champ may be tolerable, but the UAE is, after all, one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Does it really have to squeeze its low-paid migrants so much – and segregate them from the rest of society, one South Asian editor asked, following the screening.
And while there was no obvious mistreatment of workers occurring in the camps shown in the film, it's clearly a problem elsewhere in the country - as we have highlighted on this blog in the past.
However, one thing that is hard to fault is Kaabour’s dedication to getting Camp ka Champ made. It took him three whole years, and numerous attempts, to gain permission from the government to film at the labour camps.
Another thing stands out about the film is the way that it highlights the contribution of migrant labourers to the UAE through building its skyscrapers and infrastructure. In a part of the world where the media is often quick to demonise migrants for taking jobs away from local youth or for being insufficiently skilled to make a 'real' contribution to the economy, Camp ka Champ is refreshing for its depiction of the inhabitants of the camps as productive members of society. In the film’s most iconic scene, Adnan ventures into Downtown Dubai to look at the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper - a tower that he helped to build.
Camp ka Champ is a triumph in many respects. It avoids falling into the trap of representing migrant workers as either victims or criminals – as the media in the Gulf, and indeed, in many other parts of the world do all too often. Watch this film to be entertained, moved and provoked – but don't expect any comment on human rights in the labour camps, or you will be disappointed.