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'Camp ka Champ': Dubai's singing contest for migrant workers

On December 22, 2013

A documentary  about a singing competition for migrant construction workers grabbed the attention of audiences at the Dubai International Film Festival earlier this month.

Camp ka Champ ('Champ of the Camp') follows the story of migrant workers living in Dubai labour camps taking part in a Bollywood singing competition similar to American Idol. You can watch the trailer here.

The film is made by Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour, a long-term UAE resident. Although Kaabour has deliberately chosen not to use the film to comment on the working conditions of migrants in the construction industry, Camp ka Champ is a welcome counterweight to some of the highly negative news coverage and media representations of migrant workers that are so common in the Gulf region (which we have blogged about here and here)

The contest provides migrant workers with an outlet for the emotional strain of being away from their families, according to this article in The Guardian:

The open to 70 labour sites, with workers singing to win cash, flights and flat-screen TVs, as well as taking part for the sheer homesickness-numbing fun of it. Many of the songs are the equivalent of traditional blues and folk, their lyrics about the pain of missing home and loved ones. Founded seven years ago by Western Union, the company through which workers typically send their entire wages back to their families, the first competition saw 30 entrants. This year there were 3,000, with a finale watched by a reported 10,000 people.

Speaking to The National ahead of the screening Kaabour said:

"People from the outside always assume that if it’s about labourers it means it’s against the UAE, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s showing how these men deal with being away from their families and how Bollywood songs play such an important role for them.”

While the contest provides light relief for the migrant workers, the reality is that their lives remain demarcated by inequality and poverty.  The first thing that the winner of the competition did to celebrate his victory was to buy torches for his village in India, which had no electricity.