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UAE migrant workers sing out in new film




Anealla Safdar

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Adnan, a Pakistani labourer in his early thirties, has worked in Dubai for seven years.

He's an aluminium fabricator and the company he works for helped build the Burj Khalifa - at 828 metres, the tallest building in the world. He's married, has made enough money to build a house back home, and is a keen singer.

Last year, he made it to the semi-finals of an annual talent competition. Champ ka Camp - Hindi for "Champion of the Camp" - takes the format of reality shows such as "X Factor" and "Pop Idol". But instead of pitting teenagers against one another, about 2,000 blue-uniformed men, mostly from South Asia, battle it out to impress a panel of judges.

And instead of a record contract as a prize, winners of last year's sixth edition received cash remittances and electrical goods for belting out their favourite Bollywood hits.

Adnan wasn't crowned winner, but he is one of the characters in an upcoming documentary by filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour that follows a group of contestants.

Named after the Western-Union-sponsored competition itself and due to be launched this year, copies of Champ of the Camp are being sent off to the industry's two most important summer events for review: the Venice and Toronto film festivals.
Pakistani contestant Adnan [Veritas Films/Clint McLean]

To date, no other film crew has been permitted by the government to pursue such films. "This is the first film ever to enter the camps legally," Kaabour said.

In one scene, Mahmoud and his team take Adnan on his first visit to the Burj Khalifa - more than two years after its lavish opening.

"We took him to see the Burj, where he reflected deeply on the disparity between him and the people who live in it," said Kaabour. "He wished his wife was with him to see the fountains; her absence is why he doesn't care about going out much. He is one of eight people living in a camp room. Most of them are Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi."

'Full of song'

Filmed during the hottest months of the year, with temperatures soaring to 50 degrees Celsius, the non-fiction tale is about 75 minutes long and told in four main languages: Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Bhojpuri. "It's a film where the story is told by labourers themselves," said Kaabour. "We come out with material which is simply full of song."

Documenting issues relating to the millions of labourers working in the UAE is not easy as an insider or outsider, and sensitivities have intensified, with several Western media outlets reporting negative news in recent years.

Films, reports and studies are often made by trespassing upon the UAE's strict laws to enter camps through the back door - and the result is usually similar: stolen images of squalid camps, sad-faced workers staring down a lens and tales of confiscated passports or impossibly low wages.

Rarely, if at all, are labourers themselves given a chance to speak on such a large scale. "What you have is one side saying conditions are terrible, and the other side saying conditions are fine," said Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. "In between, these hundreds of thousands of labourers typically don't say much at all, and are held up either as emblematic of progress or emblematic of repression by one of the two groups. I think any project that lets these people speak, and speak honestly, is fantastic really."

I think any project that lets these people speak, and speak honestly, is fantastic really.

Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch,

During the nail-biting finale, the director used four cameras and more than ten people to capture the event attended by more than 6,000 men.

"We still fail to properly empathise, sympathise with [the migrant workers'] plight because we don't really hear from them. That's where this film sounds like it can make a real valuable contribution," McGeehan said.

The process, said Kaabour, who directed films Being Osama and Teta Alf Marra, was emotional.

"It's very moving to see men who carry cement and bricks break down in tears in the middle of a song. When we asked them to sing to us, they often picked a song that is both from Bollywood, but quite relevant to the life of someone who's been separated from loved ones. The film inadvertently becomes slightly like a musical, because every man is singing his story to you."

The competition - something looked forward to by men who live by a Bollywood soundtrack on their phones, and who pass time by singing to one another - is one of the nuances often skipped by international media. "In terms of the competition itself, anything which offers some form of entertainment is to be applauded," said McGeehan.

Kaabour and his team worked relentlessly for two-and-a-half years to get multi-layered permits from the UAE's National Media Council and the companies that hire labourers.

"The access that he's gotten to be there for five months is pretty amazing," said Timothy Wilkerson, professor of digital cinema at Northwestern University in Qatar. "There's reasons why he may have been given access by the government there, perhaps, or the companies; they may want to show that life in the camps is not all horrible, that there is entertainment and leisure time."

The camps had to get on board and clearances had to be issued from the country's authorities throughout to film the labourers at their Dubai homes and in the city.

"I feel like Mahmoud's going to be fair in his approach. I don't think he's going to be a mouthpiece for the government there, or the companies that work out of the UAE. I feel he will give a fair portrayal of these folks," said Wilkerson.

For the film to be shown in the UAE, it will have to run by the National Media Council, like all other releases. "The level of openness that we've been allowed is really unprecedented. It testifies to openness existing on some level here," said Kaabour.

Two views
Mahmoud Kaabour in the centre [Veritas Films/Siddharth Siva]

"We spent months on end sitting and living with these labourers - seeing what every aspect of their lives was like," said Kaabour. "Their stories, besides their fantastic singing, shed light on certain aspects of the life of a labourer living in the Gulf."

While he admits some camps fared better than his own expectations, the lonely reality of being physically disconnected from family, and living with thousands of other men in an enclosed space, was affecting.

"These men work long hours. They wake up before sunrise and return at around sunset - and they are left with this evening time where they have to make a life for themselves, and this life ends up being very introspective,” said Kaabour.

There are plans for a camp tour when the film is released, which will take the picture around some of the UAE's roughly 1,000 labour camps.

Though an exciting prospect, Kaabour said the film will be of most value to audiences who don't work in that sector, from expatriates in different emirates to the international community.

"There's a certain skyline that is always seen from two sides," he said. "Dubai and its towers and its glitz and glam recedes in the background from a much larger place where thousands of men live and work - they work in a city we live in, but they don't reside in it."



migrant workers, Labor Camp, film, UAE

Economic sectors

General relevance - all sectors

Content types

Support initiatives and Statistics on work and life conditions

Target groups

(Im)migrants workers, Policymakers, Journalists, Public awareness, Employers, agencies and their representatives, Researchers, Unions, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan

Spheres of activity

Social work