This weekend, Champ of The Camp, the remarkable documentary by locally based filmmaker Mahmood Kaboor (Being Osama and Grandma: A Thousand Times), hit cinemas nationwide. The film chronicles an annual talent contest of the same name, held at labour camps across the UAE since 2007. For a film like this, in a country like this, to win a theatrical release is a major achievement and it follows months of social media campaigning, international press coverage and negotiations with risk-averse distributors. Eva Star Sayre, co-founder of Veritas Films, who spent two years just getting the needed permits, has been drumming up support far and wide, including via a crowd funding campaign to raise money to promote the film beyond already smitten festivalgoers.
On Thursday evening, I attended one of the first screenings of Champ of the Camp at National Cinema, in downtown Abu Dhabi, and was struck by two things: the powerful emotions this film is capable of triggering (even on repeated viewing); and the fact that, despite this particular cinema usually being the haunt of mostly South Asian expats, everyone in that movie theatre that evening was white. No wonder, really, but until that point the thought that the film might appeal more to Western expats had never crossed my mind. It brought home the necessity of the crowd-funding campaign, which is explicitly aimed at engaging diverse new audiences and hopes to keep the film in cinemas for at least a couple of weeks.
Because the only way places like National Cinema will continue showing Champ of the Camp is if the filmmakers manage to get more 'bums on seats'. National Cinema is no multiplex. It doesn’t even have a website. To find out movie timings, you call their landline number and wait for a slightly muffled South Asian voice to go though the day’s slate of films, one by one. When I called, the only title I recognised was Champ of the Camp. The other were all Bollywood films with Hindi titled I had never heard. But I noticed that, unlike the other films, Champ of the Camp came with the added explanation “documentary film”. The cinema’s decision to draw attention to this distinction reflects how rare it is for documentaries to hit the big screen in the UAE.
I first saw Champ of the Camp at the Dubai International Film Festival, where it had its world premiere and garnered a loyal local following. Many pledged money to support the filmmakers’ bid to get the film into local cinemas because they felt it hit a nerve. They wanted more people to see behind the ‘glass wall’ that separates manual labourers from other expats in this country. Alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking, Champ of the Camp deftly parses a complex set of issues, which will resonate with anyone with a social conscience. It celebrates the talents and strength of spirit of the hardworking contestants it portrays. It shows their daily struggles and constant worries, while also portraying them as the makers of their own fortune, intent on building a better life for their families. As the film chronicles the ups and downs of the nationwide competition, it makes savvy use of the visual style of reality television and music videos to spin a visceral yarn.
The National Cinema foyer’s walls are plastered with Bollywood blockbuster posters, replete with busty heroines in sparkly saris and sleek-haired male leads in leather jackets. Picking up tickets and making our way to the theatre, we were greeted by friendly, if somewhat bemused, staff. When we were ushered to our seats, I looked around us and counted over a dozen people. There was an almost conspiratorial excitement in the air. This film, we all knew, was no Indian blockbuster. This film marked the first time a film crew had been allowed to shoot inside the country’s workers’ camps; it was the first documentary of its kind to get a cinematic release and we had all turned up to support it.
Champ of the Camp received standing ovations at DIFF and, although that didn’t happen at the National Theatre this weekend, the audience was clearly moved and left the theatre talking animatedly - and it was not about the weather, that much is certain. What better outcome could a documentary film ask for?
My fingers are crossed that the indie marketing engine works and people of all stripes will descend on cinemas for some Champ of the Camp magic. Just think of it as a way of showing support for two historically disregarded groups in the UAE (manual workers and independent documentary filmmakers) and get down to the cinema. This film is too good not to make it.