Mahmoud Kaabour is Champ of the Camp

Long-awaited follow up to Teta Alf Mara is finally on the way.
Kaabour and the team on set.
Kaabour and the team on set.

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Mahmoud Kaabour’s latest film has been a while in coming, delayed mainly by the incredible success of its predecessor. Finally, however, shooting concluded over the summer in the heat of Dubai’s labour camps. The result is the long-awaited Champ of the Camp.

Few in the regional industry will be unfamiliar with the work of  Kaabour. The Lebanese-born, UAE-based film maker’s Veritas Films is a long-standing member of the local industry, with a host of successful corporate films and documentaries under its belt.

His most successful film to date, 2010’s Teta, Alf Mara really took on a life of its own over the course of 2011 and 2012, winning a host of awards including Best Film at London International Documentary Film Festival, a New York Times Critics’ Choice Award during New York’s Tribeca Festival and audience awards at Doha Tribeca and Dox Box, among others.

In fact, so successful was the film that Kaabour’s next project, a documentary following life on Dubai’s labour camps was put on hold for around a year while Kaabour undertook the role of jet setting director, following the film around on a successful run which took in screenings or festivals in 52 cities on five continents, nine airlines picking the film up for in flight screening, and a week-long run on Al Jazeera. The only continent Kaabour failed to personally attend a screening on was Australia.

When we spoke to Kaabour last year about the initial success of Teta, we expected his new film to be complete by the end of 2011. Teta, it seems, had other ideas.

Now, however, we can report that it should be finished this year. Shooting is complete, and when we met up with Kaabour in Dubai he was already deep in the exhausting post-production process, with an anticipated December completion date.

The new project, Champ of the Camp, is a documentary following a singing competition that takes place each year on Dubai’s labour camps.

It’s a kind of blue collar X-Factor, with some very human stories at its heart, as Kaabour explains: “It was a really intense, beautiful experience,” he says. “It was challenging working on a film where you don’t speak the same language as most of the subjects.

I had to rely on my team of assistant directors who spoke Hindi and Urdu, but still it was strange because a lot of the time I didn’t really know what the story was until we got back to the edit and I could be filled in on the detail.

Sometimes on set, we really did have to follow a hunch that someone was going to prove interesting, take them aside, and if they were camera-friendly, follow them around!”

The hunch theory seems to have worked. Kaabour says: “We ended up mainly following five really interesting labourers, all of whom shared a deep love of music and fed their nostalgia through that music. For the latter stages of the competition, we did have earpieces and direct translation so we knew who to follow when.”

Following the success of his last film, Kaabour has high hopes for his latest project: “We don’t want to gloat over the success of Teta, although we’re very happy about it, but we think this new film will really cement our position as leading documentary producers and take viewers to places they’ve never been before.”

Given the nature of the film’s subject matter, and the controversy caused by recent European documentaries on Dubai’s labour camps, it’s perhaps unsurprising that one of the biggest challenges facing the team, after it had found the time to make the film at all, was acquiring the necessary filming permits: “It was tough,” Kaabour concedes.

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“We’d already started lobbying for permissions before we took the year off with Teta. It wasn’t just one permit we needed either – we needed permission from individual camps, from the City, from the National Media Council.

I have to thank Eva [Sayre, executive producer] there as she handled all that side, she got us exclusive access and worked with all the local services. It really was her film as much as mine. We had great help from Location Services too. They really believed in the film and helped us wherever they could.”

Eventually, the necessary permissions were granted and Kaabour and his team were able to get down to the serious business of making a film. Kaabour feels the team’s attitude to the subject may have helped in this respect: “We went in with an open mind,” he says.

“In the past films about labour camps have tended to have an agenda, but we found that some of the camps were really well catered for, with cricket fields, volleyball courts, on-site catering.

We found people that were here because they wanted to be. One might be building a house back home, another saving to visit his family for Eid. That’s not to say they don’t have a tough time sometimes, but they are people with goals, the same as anybody else.

“When previous documentaries have talked about labourers it’s always been as a single community, and how ‘their’ lives are. No one ever seems to have given individuals a voice, and that’s what we set out to do. We’ve bracketed the singing with personal stories about their families, when they last saw them, why they’re here.

Of course the thread of the narrative is the singing competition, but we also see them at work during the day, socially, in the last hours of the day when they go back to their room and Skype their family or watch a Bollywood movie on their laptop.

There’s an emotional background to the characters and we think audiences will really identify with that.”

Although his own tribulations may have been mild compared to the physical realities of the labourers’ working day, Kaabour adds that the film was physically draining for his team too: “It was the most physical shoot I’ve ever done – it was really about what the body can endure.

We were filming in the July heat, we had to constantly make our way through hundreds of people to get the camera where it needed to be, and then when you set up the camera a wall of 500 men immediately appears around you – you see that throughout the film.

“There’s a pervading criteria in documentaries that you should avoid anyone looking at the camera and pretend it’s not there. Well this was the exact opposite.These guys wanted to do anything for the camera.

Dhattu, for example, is a cleaner at one of the camps. He never leaves there, and the first time we pointed the camera at him he did an impromptu dance routine. When you point the camera at these guys, they feel they’re getting five minutes to do exactly what they want.

More often than not, they’ll start singing accapella and really let go, all among a background of construction, industrial rubbish and carpentry workshops. It gives the songs a brand new meaning, far away from the brightness and colours of their Bollywood beginnings.”

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The singing competition itself covers more than 60 camps, although Kaabour’s team focused mainly on the 10 where the competition’s latter stages took place, culminating in the grand final on municipal land with room for an audience of 5,000 in the Sonapur district, where most of the camps are located.

Kaabour adds: “The final is huge, yet nobody outside the camps ever hears about it, so that’s why we’re there.”

Kaabour scaled the production up in order to match the size of the competition. The whole film was shot with a minimum of two full HD units recording on Sony PMW-500s, allowing the crew to always capture both the contestant and the judges.

For the final this went up to four units – one on a crane, two filming the action on stage and one focusing on the contestants getting ready to perform backstage, again all PMW-500s.

Kaabour explains: “We realised early on that one camera is not enough to cover this event. One guy sings, talks to the judge, another guy hits his buzzer to guess the next song then comes on to sing, it was too much. So we moved up to two units.

This was already expensive considering the whole thing was self-funded, but for the finale we really wanted a different look so we went up to four units. We’ve given it a technical treatment like a glitzy TV talent show, but it’s such a contrast to that.
Instead of flashy sets and flambuoyant contestants you have this very basic desert location and contestants who really aren’t used to expressing themselves.”

Appropriately for a film with such a strong musical element, the team pushed the boat out in terms of audio recording too. In a first for the region, the film was shot in 5.1 surround sound, and Kaabour seems delighted with the results: “In the context of labour camp it gives so much atmosphere and density to the sound.

It was an ordeal to operate – there’s a huge mic that has to be in the centre of a circle of sound, so that sometimes meant standing in the middle of 5,000 excited labourers trying to get the perfect audio track, but the results are really worth the effort.”

With the shooting complete, Kaabour informs me that the team are currently working day and night on the edit and post-production, which is being shared with post-production partners Creative Kettle and taking place both in the UAE and Europe.
Kaabour adds: “The stories are clear now and it’s all about putting it together. We needed to send some of the stuff out for the post. There’s one scene in particular where the guys are singing and it turns into a full-blown pop video – a bit of the magic realism I like to use in my films – and we’re not professional music video makers, so we wanted to make sure that was right.

Then there’s the audio mix, which will require a lot of work and organisation thanks to the 5.1, so we’ll be seeking assistance there too.”

Despite the complicated post process, Kaabour anticipates completion of the 75-minute film by Christmas, after which he hopes to be accepted for competition at February’s Berlinale, where it will also premier if all goes according to plan.

Kaabour’s masterplan will then see the film, subtitled in English plus Arabic for the regional festivals, ‘cover the main global festivals over the course of 2013, win some awards, have a limited theatre release and Oscar qualification run (which Veritas has decided to now complete with all its features), and acquire some major TV distribution deals by the end of 2013.’

It’s a neat plan, and of course open to change, but things already look promising. A number of sales agencies and distributors are interested in the film, but awaiting rough cuts before signing up officially.

This could in itself affect the film’s festival programme, as agents are likely to have their own idea of which festivals should be hit and when according to where the most likely buyers are.

Looking ahead, Kaabour concludes: “Veritas as a company still makes corporate films, but we have developed a niche for making documentaries and quite personal projects. Now we are beginning to get distribution sorted out it’s becoming more viable.

The costs are still very high, but then the days when there was a lot of money in corporate films are behind us now as budgets are squeezed across the board. That being the case, we’re much happier making these kind of films, and we really hope we can set a benchmark and help to make it much easier to get permits and so on so that more films can be made in future.”

Key Equipment
- 4x Sony PMW-5
- DPA 5.1 Mic
- Final Cut
Sound Devices 788 recorder

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