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Mahmoud Kaabour is Champ of the Camp

by Chris Newbould on Jan 6, 2013

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Kaabour and the team on set.
Kaabour and the team on set.

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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