Subcontinental laborers in Dubai find distraction from hardships via musical contests in Mahmoud Kaabour’s slick and enjoyable docu “Champ of the Camp.” The title is also the name of the competition, in which teams from 70 labor camps test their knowledge of Bollywood songs, cheered on by crowds of men happy to take their minds off the privations of life. Kaabour’s need to play ball with sponsoring companies means he’s slightly hamstrung when it comes to exposing the true conditions these men work under, yet attentive audiences will pick up on plentiful signals, and fests will likely have a popular charmer on their hands.
Dubai’s glitzy construction boom is literally built from the sweat of men from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who contract themselves for years at a stretch and barely see home. Toiling long hours in 100-degree-plus conditions, they lack most worker rights and are lodged in rudimentary labor camps, all for an average wage of about $275 per month. The payoff is that they earn enough to send funds back home, paying for education, dowries and houses they dream of retiring to once they leave the Gulf.
UAE-based advertising agency Right Track came up with the idea of promoting clients Western Union and Etisalat (the country’s major telecommunications provider) through a contest in which workers vie for prize money and goods while showing off their knowledge of Bollywood music. As Bollywood is one of the few distractions accorded these men, the songs fill a major void in their lives, and the “Champ of the Camp” challenges allow them to not only name that tune but sing it as well.
The docu opens with a montage of workers singing about separation, set against a mind-boggling skyline of luxury buildings that they helped construct but could never dream of entering. Subsequently, Kaabour (the delightful “Grandma, a Thousand Times”) concentrates on a few charisma-charged men entering the contest: Dhattu, from India; Adnan, from Pakistan; and Shofi, from Bangladesh. Seen in the competitions as well as the camps, these laborers channel their loneliness into the music of their lives, their songs and dreams of championship serving as a distraction from their days of toil.
Kaabour needed to pony up to the employment companies to gain access to the camps, which means he studiously avoids direct criticism of worker conditions and, even more taboo, the UAE’s treatment of foreign workers. Inevitably some sense of how these men live comes through, thanks to shots of crammed living spaces, discussion of sweltering heat, visa issues, and the fact that they rarely see their loved ones. While many will criticize the documentary for not being more forthright about the problem, it needs to be said that Kaabour has at least given faces and personalities to a few of the legions of nameless men who sacrifice themselves on behalf of the worshipers of Mammon.
The film is largely constructed like a reality show, with scenes during the competition, hosted by Shobana Chandramohan, intercut with the guys discussing their lives and dreams. Although there’s a certain amount of repetition and the drive sags toward the end, “Champ” captures the sudden shifts from sadness to joy that only song can achieve. As a rare look at the largely ignored masses breaking their backs to build cities arising from sand and questionable ethics, it deserves attention.