Singing One’s Labours: an interview with Champ of the Camp director Mahmoud Kaabour

Author ········· Shoag Al-Adsani
Published ······ Online, Oct 2014
Section ·······  Culture

Photo courtesy of Veritas Films 

Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour’s latest film, Champ of the Camp, takes an unorthodox look inside the labour camps of the United Arab Emirates [UAE]. Filmed over the span of four months, Kaabour and his crew followed the workers as they participated in an X-Factor style, Bollywood-inspired, singing competition. Watching the documentary is at once a funny, touching and often harrowing experience, as Kaabour censors nothing in his account of the mens’ lives. The world premiere of his film took place in December 2013 against the backdrop of Burj Khalifa in an event that attracted around 1,500 people, including the labour workers. The director is currently in New York for the North American premiere of the film being held at the CBGB Festival,which used to be the bedrock of punk rock music. Kaabour states, “it’s an honour… it seems the organisers are seeing a certain kind of rebellion in our characters, in their songs”. I interviewed the director on his experience of making the film and his thoughts on raising awareness of the plight of the labour worker in the Arab region.

SA | I watched Champ of the Camp and really enjoyed it. With the Bollywood music and the fact that you made the documentary just the workers’ voices, I found that really interesting. How much did you plan for it to be so that it was just narrated by them, and that there were no interfering narratives from the authorities or anything like that?

MK | The fact that the film is entirely narrated by the labourers themselves has been a creative, like an aesthetic choice that I have done, really since the onset. I didn’t want to make another film where everyone else speaks on behalf of the labourer and [that tells] us [about] what their life is really like. I think for once I wanted to hear the story of the labourer from the Asian subcontinent being narrated by themselves and I wanted to hear it in their own level of sophistication, [through] their own vocabulary and in their own perception of their own lives. That was very important for me, and that was the how this film could not be argued against in any way, because there have been many attempts to tell that story by other people which have raised a lot of suspicion, rightly so.

SA | I think you mentioned in an interview once that you were worried about frustrating the authorities even though everything you were doing was legal, and you were also worried about disappointing peoples’ perceptions about what the labour camp would seem. Can you talk a little bit more about that balance between the two?

MK | Well to start I have to give some context. And basically that context is there was naturally a big interest around the world to penetrate the camps and bring that reality out. However, that was often done through the backdoor, where people would – certain journalists would – find their way into the camp. They would film let’s say for an hour or two and then they would slap their own impressions of the camp on top of the video and paint that [into] a much larger image. [To me], that was a little bit shallow and often comparative to the life of the journalist himself, or his class, or people in his own country. And I always thought, from an economic point of view, that does not make any sense because unless you understand the economic paradigm in which these labourers work you cannot have a full picture. Naturally, as well as in the UAE and probably in other places around the Gulf, there grew a certain wariness towards journalists who are trying to make their way into the camps. They were often blocked from going in and making stories and it grew to the extent where there was this implied stance that anyone who is trying to tell stories from the camp is someone who stands in opposition to the economic progress of the Gulf. I felt that there might be just something in between, there might be a chance to tell the story strictly in a human-driven way and listen to it through its protagonists and try to find out from them whether the way we imagine their life is accurate or whether they experience it differently. I wanted to understand from them what is the socio-economic context that pushes these men to come to the Gulf and be so far away from their families, work so hard and struggle. Is it really slavery or not?

SA | Yeah, cause it is very complicated – you had a lot of the workers saying it was like slave work but at the end of the day when they were able to send the money back that’s more than enough to make them feel like it was worth it. And then you had some of the workers that were saying I would go back now but I have no choice. I also remember there was one who said he actually didn’t have a problem with it and he was happy doing the work that he was doing. I really appreciated that, I think it’s important that we have a documentary that showed it from an objective point of view and that was purely their voice. The fact that it’s also all in Hindi forces you to view it from their perspective.

MK | Of course. I think people lose a lot of messages when they have to give a testimony or an interview in a foreign language. Not to mention that, as you probably know, I don’t know if you’ve lived in the Gulf yourself or not, labourers, the first English words that they tend to express are words of thanks and gratitude to the people who employ them in the Gulf, and I wanted to really go beyond that. I thought I could only get these deep emotions and deep reflections on their lives and surroundings through interviews in their native language, so I had to surround myself with assistant directors who speak four languages that appear in this film, which are Hindi, Urdu, Bhojpuri, and Bangladeshi. So, from the execution point of view, the documentary was quite difficult, because in previous films I used to work in a way where I am directly in a question-and-answer dynamic with my characters and I can steer that conversation at the right moments to get the right answer. Luckily with a lot of practice with my assistants, we still managed to get that.

SA | The fact that the documentary is mostly about the singing competition that they held, was that something that happened coincidentally?

MK | Well, it was actually the singing competition itself which presented to me and my team this really ‘safe corridor’ into that story. Because it has the veil of being a film about a competitive singing activity but we knew up front that it was going to open the door to a lot of inadvertent layers as well by showing various aspects of life in the camps and by hopefully getting very deep testimon[ies] from the individuals. I’ll let you know here that we filmed for four months across thirteen camps, so I love to think of the film as a study of life in the camps. It might not be the last one and I hope it will not be, but it's finally a document that I hope anyone can refer to to see what life is like in there. Now, this does not speak for every camp, there are so many camps and so many different standards – people live different lives and you know, maybe that aspect of urban life in the Gulf, the life and lodging of the service sector, the individuals who serve the city is so huge that I’ve only tapped through the surface. But I hope that this will open the door to scholars, filmmakers, and journalists to go in and study more because the more we put out, the more there will be dialogue and [some] level of debate, because as you also know the Gulf is not entirely democratic and the means of activism in it are fairly simple and shallow. So this was a step forward I hope to think.

SA | I read somewhere that you were asked by the International Labour Organisation [ILO] to talk about creative narrations on labour and migration. I was wondering if you were going to do that?

MK | That’s happened already actually! At the end of January of this year I was invited to address not the ILO entirely, but at a media summit [that was] held [near] the Dead Sea featuring some of the top names of journalism from across the Gulf. I was invited to show the film there and discuss the theme you mentioned. It was a very interesting presentation, there was a lot of heated discussion as you would imagine, as the film has presented new findings that sometimes oppose what people think life in the camps is really like. But again, it is a documentary, it is factual, it is video. So, it’s very hard to shut down. I do thank the ILO and the PANOS institute who invited me because that was, to me, a great way to disseminate my findings, especially to editors-in-chiefs of very important magazines and newspapers from the Gulf and the Middle East and North Africa Region.

SA | I mentioned earlier about how the documentary seems a bit surreal – I think a lot of that has to do with the music and the singing. The workers were bursting into song a lot quite randomly, and there was a lot of disparity between the songs and the industrial settings that they were in, and a lot the times the lyrics were quite different to the contexts in which they were singing, and sometimes they were quite fitting. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, on what the soundtrack meant for the documentary.

MK | As a Lebanese citizen who does not master Hindi but is familiar with Bollywood by mere extension of living in the Gulf where Bollywood is a big attraction, I approached this film thinking that my characters are probably going to be singing the most famous songs of their favourite films, and my imagination really stopped at that. However, my characters were so naturally picking songs that tell their own stories, and they would often burst into song at the end of an interview, so it’s almost like commentary on their own words after they’d heard them. And that was so beautiful and so unplanned, in a way it made me feel that perhaps the musical genre is a very natural one – the idea that characters sing what’s on their mind or what’s in their hearts – I was never a musical fan but then seeing it happen so naturally in front of my camera, I now hold that genre in high regard actually.

Photo courtesy of Veritas Films

SA | I think that [the music] made it very touching, sad, and sweet at the same time. One of my favourite scenes is with Adnan where he goes into the building and he starts singing, and it was like a music-video type scene. It was really strange, he was singing in the Burj Khalifa and it was just Adnan, and you had the workers in the background – it was very strange and funny but also quite sad.

MK | That on the other hand was pure filmmaking! I always wished to do at least one music video with one of my characters, and I had saved a little bit of money on the side to do that and halfway through the film we did not know who it could be, but Adnan’s story was slowly becoming more prominent. The fact that he worked on Burj Khalifa, which is considered to be not only the tallest tower in the world but probably the largest achievement of the labour community of the Emirates. So, I tried to take him there to show him what he has built, or rather contributed to the building of, and he was in shock, in pure awe, and that became a scene. Revising that scene in the edit suite, we thought there's no one better suited in this film to be in a music video than him because his story had this very interesting arc. And he was also always missing his wife, and he loved ‘Teri Meri’ the song which is a song about a loved one. So it all added up together, and we ended up finding a construction site where we filmed this music video with him. Adding all the scenes together, it end[ed] up building a very interesting, I’m not going to call it surreal, but maybe transcendental arc where maybe he lifts up his wings and takes off for a few seconds, and becomes the star of a music video that he is either imagining or staging. It’s not part of the story obviously, and no one comments on it later, and we enjoyed that, despite the fact that this music video was filmed at perhaps 48 degrees celsius at a construction site that was not ventilated. As we made it, we basically got to experience hands on what life was like everyday for Adnan and his peers. We were drenched in sweat, we were panting the whole time, we thought we were going to pass out and unlike any music video production, he was the only one who was still on his feet and ready for the next shot.

SA | How much were you able to involve yourself in directing the narrative a certain way without taking away from the voices of the people you were filming? Was it purely just seeing where the documentary was going to take you, or did you have some kind of path to follow?

MK | Well, I obviously did not control the narrative of any of my characters, everything that made it into the film was based on what they shared with us and what we thought had credibility and poignance and would add to the larger understanding of this marginalised community in the Gulf. However, what remained at play throughout and could have gone in many different directions was how to patch all these stories together, how to braid them together into a film that still has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A film that tells you about life in the camps but remains quite honest to its lead characters and their own narratives. So editing the film was really a very big adventure. As a matter of fact, Champ was edited twice. We looked at it with a number of experts and a few of the funders involved and a few of the key talent and we decided there was something wrong. We didn’t quite know what was wrong with it. [We were so proud of] the material, but there was something about it that did not gel together well. So, we decided to re-edit the film with an editor from the UK who is older than the rest of us, more experienced than the rest of us, and has never seen or heard of the camps. And we left him to rummage through our stories, through our material and put a story together from it. And that’s how the film came to its current shape.

SA | Are there any plans for any future documentaries, would you expand on what you did with Champ of the Camps or do you have any new projects?

MK | Not with Champ unfortunately. Like I mentioned, it was uphill, namely getting the permits from the government to shoot this film as well as the tough journey of chronicling the very difficult lives of these individuals, as well as the delays in editing, you know .. it’s been a rough ride. I would love to [continue] hop[ing] that this would encourage others to pick up the mantle of this very specific theme, in any form of scholarship, in any form of journalism. However, I am currently looking at other things to do for myself. This was the second film I put out in three years, the other one was Teta Alf Mara (Grandma, a Thousand Times), which had a fantastic journey and won so many awards, and actually made it to the Oscars. That film is also very dear to me. And, I daresay that I’m a bit tired, and people always love to hear what’s coming next! I obviously have a few ideas in my drawer, however I wanted to take six months off and just travel basically. So I have been travelling between Berlin and New York, and a few other cities that I have never been to in my life like Warsaw in Poland, and just trying to really interact with people, soak in [some] new scenery, and flush out the remnants of the last project from my mind, and then getting ready for something else. I don’t believe in constantly running on the wheel for the sake of remaining in the news or on the festival circuit, but I trust something new will get a hold of me in no time.

Photo courtesy of Veritas Films

SA | I hope so, and I look forward to it. I think you’re one of the documentary makers in the Arab world that we really need now, and it’s exciting to see your work and I look forward to seeing the next film. I hope that more people, after seeing your film, will be inspired to look at their own narratives in the Arab region.

MK | Thank you!

SA | As you know there are a lot of human rights issues with labour workers in the Arab region and you only ever hear – I hate using the term ‘Western’  – but you only ever hear people talking about them from the West, from Europe, from the United States.

MK | Yes, foreign perspectives ... I swear to you, we are even having trouble now selling this film to Western televisions. There is a bias against the perspective of the film that still drives me up the wall. We thought that it will be a [piece of] cake to get a film like this[to air] on television in the United Kingdom.

SA | There was an article in the Guardian this summer that was talking about the workers in Qatar and in Dubai. I would imagine that they would want to show that [documentary] on TV here.

MK | Yeah, but that hasn’t been the case so far, which is really disappointing. And we can’t [help] but wonder, as it was also done according to the requirements of broadcast[ing] standards, and we would love to think that visually and stylistically the film was not half bad. But I think there is some bias in the West to continue to get their own perspective on the labour story in the Gulf.

SA | I read something about the World Premiere that said it was the joining of two halves of society. What was it like to have the workers and the people watching the film be in the same place?

MK | It was intense and symbolic. What will come from it we are yet to see. I would like to see a full society where those two factions are in constant contact, the way it should be, rather than a complete ghettoisation of the work community. But it was a start.


A Bollywood fan herself, Shoag Al-Adsani recently graduated with a degree in English literature and is looking to master in development studies next year.