The Lebanese filmmaker talks to Liz Shackleton about his documentary, which premiered at DIFF.

Award-winning Lebanese filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour returns to DIFF with documentary Champ of the Camp, about a Bollywood song and trivia competition in the UAE’s labour camps.

He previously attended DIFF with Being Osama in 2005. Champ of the Camp premiered at Burj Park on Saturday.

Where did you get the idea for this film?

When my parents migrated to the UAE in 1989, I was sent for a summer job at a printing press in an industrial area of Sharjah. At that time, the only place available to me to eat lunch was a labourers’ cafeteria. I used to eat lunch sitting with the labourers and that was the closest I got to them. It baffled me that for the next twenty years of my life in the UAE, I was never offered that proximity to labourers again. I always wondered about this invisible barrier between their community and mine.

The executive producer of my company, Eva Sayre, saw a small blurb in a newspaper four years ago covering a singing competition in a labour camp in the UAE and she immediately thought that this would be the greatest portal to enter labour camps and cover them in a way that’s not polemical.

Was it difficult to access the labour camps?

It was borderline impossible but we as filmmakers are known to be quite relentless. It took us three years to align the required permits and get the crew to enter the camps finally in 2012. We kept persuading the parties involved which are the National Media Council, the companies that own the camps, the Dubai TV and Film Commission as well as the labourers themselves.

The labour camps are naturally a harsher place than anything we are used to in Dubai. We got to see the positive and the negative side and understand this unique social institution, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

How did the labourers react to being filmed?

The labourers were quite thrilled that they were getting some sort of attention. Many of them were hungry to get a chance to sing and dance to our camera. But it naturally became different for them when they finally watched the finished film and understood that it’s both a tribute to Bollywood as well as the lives of people who have built this country.

How did you feel about the free public screening next to the Burj Khalifa?

Any filmmaker would be thrilled to have their film open to such a large audience. It was a symbolic conciliatory moment for the people who live in the UAE because there has been an invisible wall between the labourers and rest of the dwellers of this country for decades. And to see their life story unfold alongside the tallest tower in the world, which one of our characters has interestingly worked on, is positively symbolic.