Singing contest Camp Ka Champ (“Champ of the Camp” in English) is like The X Factor except rather than allowing novice singers indulge in a vacuous pop-star fantasy for a few months, years after that boat sailed, it helps impoverished migrant workers in Dubai escape from the daily grind of building one of the world's most opulent cities at break-neck speed.
Instead of Simon Cowell, with his tight t-shirt and eye-rolling theatrics, Dubai-based Indian singer and presenter Shobana Chandramohan plays judge. The format is different too: contestants fight to recognize a tune from its opening chords, then sing, however well, or badly, the remaining lyrics.
It’s a chance for every camp employee to show off their singing skills and Bollywood wisdom in front of everyone they live and work with — but only within government-regulated camps where workers have the right residency documents.
Understandably, tensions run high in the battle for the Champ stamp and the pressure mounts with every passing year. It was devised by UAE-based advertising agency Right Track to promote clients including Western Union, the company that transfers most of the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese worker’s salaries back to their families.
When the competition first hit UAE labor camps in 2008, 30 men entered. In 2013, 3,000 took a chance, with around 10,000 said to have come to watch the final. The prizes, even according to the contestants, aren’t life changing. They are flights home, a bit of cash, flat-screen TVs. You could argue that the champ’s biggest win is the veneration of his campmates.
A man currently earning similar respect in film industry camps is Lebanese-born long-term Dubai resident, director Mahmoud Kaabour. After producer Eva Sayre told him about Champ of the Camp during its second year, it quickly dawned on them that the contest could offer a way to get into the camps with a camera — plus permission.
The seed for this desire to record inside laborer accommodation was planted young. “At 14 I got a summer job in an UAE industrial area,” remembered Kaabour. “Every day I ate lunch in a cafeteria where laborers ate.”
“The following 20 years, my life in the UAE did not offer me such proximity to laborers again. I always thought that was baffling. I decided I wanted to create a film to break down that invisible wall between Dubai dwellers and the people who create and build Dubai for us.”
Eventually, access was granted and filming of the 2012 contest for the documentary Champ of the Camp began, albeit nervously. “I couldn’t actually understand why I was allowed in,” recalls Mahmoud.
“As a documentary maker anything I would have come across was going to end up being in the film,” he said. “Either the film would annoy the authorities for showing a side of the camps they did not approve of, even though I was in there legally. Or it was going to disappoint by not honoring the prevailing impression of what a (labor) camp is. I was anxious throughout.”
Champ of the Camp, the documentary (official trailer)
Then there is the sensitive issue of filmmaking itself in Dubai, following the much-publicized imprisonment of American expat Shezanne Cassim. Cassim was held on charges of threatening national security last April, after he and some friends posted a satirical short set in the emirate about a made-up martial arts school on YouTube. Following eight months in jail, the UAE deported him in January.
Kaabour’s reality-style film therefore follows an objective structure. Dozens of men were initially interviewed at the auditions, but only those who made it furthest in the Champ crusade become the film’s main characters. Knowing they’d be accused of interviewing men handpicked for either their positivity or particularly bleak circumstances, Kaabour is adamant about the documentary’s non-bias.
“We gave the voice entirely to the laborers and wanted them to say whatever it is they have to say,” he said. It turns out most workers just want to talk to their wives and children back home. Dozens are filmed singing Bollywood numbers and “ghazal” — classical Indian love songs. Some are comparable to American blues, with somber lyrics about wives and families. It seems the topic uppermost in most of the laborers’ minds is not the work they sweat through during the day, but whatever’s going on wherever they came from. While work contracts are typically at least three years, trips home are made once a year, if that.
“Sometimes I talk to my mother on the phone and she tells me to just come home, that they don’t need the money,” says one young man choking back tears. He hasn’t seen his family in three years. He ignores her, as he knows his parents need the Dhs700 ($190) monthly salary they sold their sliver of land in India for, in order to finance their son’s Dubai relocation.
An older man, Dhattu, seems more at peace with his situation. His job is to sweep the labor camps. He knows he will have to keep this job for several more years in order to marry off each of his three daughters. But before we’re introduced to Champ’s key characters, viewers are intrigued by shots inside the infamous “labor camps.”
While the accommodation appears to be an improvement on that which appalled the world in media reports in 2008 and 2009, even these regulated camps are a shock. Eight workers share a room with little storage or belongings, and dozens share kitchens with no AC, even during the summer’s 110-degree-plus heat.
Many of the camp inhabitants have come from impoverished villages, often without running water or reliable electricity, but that's no excuse for substandard accommodation. “They are a strange construct,” said Kaabour, after spending months filming inside them. “They only exist in this part of the world, they have a gender imbalance, they’re transitory, they’re impersonal: this remains the great source of discomfort with labor camps.”
Dhattu says early on that he feels like he’s living “in jail,” though he laughs as he says it. The first uncensored screening of Champ of the Camp took place outdoors in front of more than 1,000 viewers in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, as part of Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) in December.
It is said to have triggered tears, so moved were the city’s relatively more affluent types to hear first-hand of the harsh realities of thousands of men living right next to them. Five of the laborers from the film were invited to a podium to sing immediately afterwards — they were met by a standing ovation.
“I like to think that there was some sort of social reconciliation happening that night in Dubai,” said Kaabour. “I haven’t seen anything like it before.” The film was released in the UAE at the end of January. There’s been interest from European distributors and Kaabour has been invited to speak at the International Labour Organization's summit next month, on the topic of “creative narratives on labor and migration.”
But he’s still holding out for a little more love at home. “As we made the film, no one wanted to be seen as 100 percent siding with it. Even DIFF gave their budget to films over the Arab world other than ours. But when they saw it, they ended up throwing this huge (premiere). I think now, with the public support for the film, there’s going to be more backing,” the director said.
The latest Human Rights Watch report on the UAE outlines the continuing injustices for Dubai’s hundreds of thousands of migrant construction workers. There’s still no minimum wage. Some working environments have been deemed unsafe. Employers are said to continue to hold too much power over their workforce, while recruitment companies allegedly still illegally charge extortionate visa fees.
Obviously none of this can be tackled head on in a government-approved documentary. But the fact that Champ of the Camp gives a handful of Dubai’s sea of anonymous, overall-clad workers some depth and dignity — and that it can be shown inside the UAE — is a start. The fact Simon Cowell is nowhere to be seen is just a bonus.