Mahmoud Kaabour’s film Champ of the Camp (2014) opens with the song by a South Asian man set against the backdrop of a modernistic building covered in glass windows. The song is called “Long Separation” and the setting is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Such  juxtaposition runs throughout the movie: the poor migrant worker stands in front of a luxurious building that was built by others like him but that will never be a space he could inhabit. The man sings: “No one knows my unknown story.” Throughout the film, Kaabour attempts to tell the story of this man and many others like him in the first-ever documentary about the controversial labor camps in the UAE.

On December 7, 2017, Bard College Berlin showed just who and what are behind the shiny skyscrapers of the Emirates. We were lucky enough to have the Lebanese/UAE director Mahmoud Kaabour at the screening to discuss his award-winning documentary Champ of the Camp with us. The documentary was filmed in the UAE labor camps that house migrant workers from South Asia who are mainly employed as manual laborers in construction. For years, no one was allowed to film in these camps as it would cause controversy for the UAE: this kept these workers practically invisible to the international community. After years of trying to get the necessary permits, Kaabour and his team were finally allowed to shoot this film under the guise of making a documentary about a singing/talent competition for the migrant workers organized by Western Union.

“We were talking about the labor issue without talking about the labor issue. Otherwise, [the UAE government] would’ve shut us down,” explained Kaabour after the screening. Even though its tone is neutral, The Champ of the Camp has given the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers of the UAE a voice — a narrative voice as well as a singing one — that they sorely lacked.

The documentary shows migrant workers in a variety of settings. The audience sees both their communal and more intimate moments. At the beginning of the film, a scene shows a group of the workers cooking together in the kitchen. Neither the meal nor the kitchen looks appealing. However, the men are still singing. The subtitles disclose the song lyrics: “Maybe my son will be an engineer,” they all sing, revealing their sadly impossible dreams of social mobility for their children. Another scene of communal living features the workers giving one another haircuts. The men speak about their shared Hindu tradition of not shaving their mustaches until their fathers have passed. As opposed to these scenes of poverty, we see the workers in a different light when we are shown scenes of the singing competition. There, everyone who sings is a star for just a little bit.

Still, these instances of musical joy are contrasted with scenes where some of the workers tell their often heartbreaking stories to the documentary team in an almost confidential manner. We watch Rajesh tear up as he talks about God. We hear Shofi’s mother say to her adult child over the phone, “Son, come back home. We don’t want the money.” We are shown a picture of  Zakir’s two sons — aged five and six — as he says, “When I sing with my friends, I don’t miss home as much.” As we watch these scenes unfold, we feel as if these moments should not have existed to be filmed in the first place.

A moment that stands out from the rest in poignancy comes at the end, in a statement from the winner of the competition: “It will not make me a professional singer. I am still a laborer.” After winning $1370 and an LED Television, he is happy, but he is also aware of the illusory nature of the competition. This awareness is likely shared by the majority of the workers and is what makes listening to their stories all the more heartbreaking. For these workers, escape from poverty, let alone real social mobility, is unlikely — and they know this all too well.

The question one feels compelled to ask after listening to all of these stories is: Who is responsible? Who can be blamed for such rampant, racialized inequality? One could and certainly should blame the UAE government and companies like Western Union for the workers’s predicament. But it extends beyond that. During the discussion, Kaabour noted that “this is what the free market is like,” highlighting the similarly exploitative nature of Bangladeshi sweatshops which he asserted were “a consequence of globalization.” Deregulation of global markets and lack of comprehensive labor laws have enabled transnational corporations to outsource their production and take advantage of poor workers who have no other choice but to take these jobs in order to meet their basic needs and those of their families.

Of course, none of this analysis could be put into the film. Still, Champ of the Camp certainly initiates dialogue about labor relations. Kaabour said that his film is more likely to generate discussion at a university such as ours than to promote real change on an institutional level. This is probably true, but it seems that discourse about migrant workers is not even particularly present at some universities — or at least, not where it is most required: the most prominent example of which can be found at NYU Abu Dhabi.

Whereas an article in Gulf Business on April 29, 2014, presents the university’s construction in a positive light and focuses on its architectural achievements (“The campus covers 450,000 square metres and reaches heights in excess of 50 metres” other media show NYU Abu Dhabi in a different light. For example, New York Times (May 18, 2014) article reports that migrant workers who built the NYUAD campus were “slapped, kicked, or beaten with shoes” when suspected of starting a strike. Just as the migrant workers that appeared in Kaabour’s documentary, the workers who helped build NYUAD “had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages” for their jobs and were never reimbursed. Not only did NYUAD blatantly break the promises that they had made to these workers, but they also failed to live up to the values that they supposedly stand for.

NYU alumna Kristina Bogos, who did her study abroad at NYUAD, wrote an article for Quartz stating how shocked she was by the labor conditions. Bogos took a taxi to one of the “hospitality villages” where a lot of migrant workers were housed and spoke to workers and a pharmacist who treated them. She wrote that workers could be “‘punished’ if they fail to complete projects on time. The pharmacist had treated workers suffering from pain and heat who were, he said, ‘sometimes very, very weak.’”

I was especially struck by this sentence in Bogos’s article:

As a leading research university allegedly committed to “inventing new ways to meet humanity’s  challenges,” NYU can develop cross-campus research aimed at devising solutions to the challenges confronted by workers in the region, beyond transnational recruitment, including reforms to the “kafala” system that heavily entraps workers.

This rhetoric sounded all too familiar: it seems that many institutions utilize vocabulary of world betterment while their actions contradict their professed principles. Reading a student reflect on the discrepancies of the supposed values of her university and their execution made me wonder how NYUAD dealt with this issue on their website. There are two questions in the university’s FAQ section that are related to the labor issue, including, “What has NYUAD done to address the concerns about the treatment of the individuals who worked on the construction phase of the campus?” The answer states:

An April 2015 report by Nardello & Co. confirmed that the project’s labor standards and compliance program benefited some two-thirds of the individuals who worked on the now-completed construction of the NYUAD campus.

The response is almost comical. Presenting such a report, which revealed that only two-thirds of the workers benefited from labor standards, as a good thing is ridiculous. It only proves how little NYUAD cares about the exploitation of these workers in the first place, and how shoddily they covered their tracks when they were caught.

“But NYU can do so much more,” writes Bogos. She suggests that workers be compensated for the large recruitment fees and any damages they incurred during their deportation and that, most importantly, instead of being complicit in labor abuses, NYU should be standing up for workers’ rights.

To reiterate what Kaarbour said during the discussion at Bard College Berlin: “We, as artists, hope that our art is going to change things. But more likely, it will only create discussion in a classroom such as this.” Sadly, I have to agree with Kaabour that his film will not drastically change the economic situation of migrant workers, such as the protagonists of his documentary. However, when looking at NYUAD, it seems that even some academic institutions are either guilty of such labor abuses or at least shy away from confronting the issue. I would not claim that talking about world problems in a classroom is sufficient activism. Nevertheless, it seems that for now classrooms are one of the only platforms that really make space for this particular issue, so these necessary conversations might as well start by watching Champ of the Camp in our lecture hall.