Behind the glam façade of the UAE is the little-seen world of migrant workers, who build our cities for a comparatively meagre wage, with many of them living eight-to-a-room in labour camps. A new documentary Champ of the Camp takes us inside these camps, as the residents compete in a high stakes Bollywood singing and trivia contest.

The film first screened at the Dubai International Film Festival in December, and following a campaign to take it nationwide, will be released in cinemas on January 30. We met Lebanese director Mahmoud Kaabour to discuss his important work.

What inspired you to make this film? As a teenager, I spent one summer in Dubai working at a printing press. I shared a cafeteria with migrant workers and got to see how they live and eat. Since moving to the UAE many years ago, I have never come so close to this community again. I saw them on the other side of the highway, but never brushed shoulders with them. I wanted to make a film that broke down the barrier between labourers and the rest of the population. When we heard about the annual Champ of the Camp competition, we thought this was the best excuse to enter the camps and see what life was like on the inside.

How did you get access to the labour camps? Any time you want to film in the UAE, in any location, you have to get approval and a filming permit. The process was especially frustrating for us. As the subject of labour camps is so sensitive, each government entity we applied to passed us on to the next. After three years of going in circles, we finally got permission to film in the labour camps, with unrestricted access. There was no one telling us what to do or not do.

What was your first impression of the labour camps? At first, as a documentary maker, I felt vindicated that we were finally allowed behind closed doors. But once I got inside, it was intense. My daughter was born during the filming of Champ of the Camp which changed the course of my life and changed the angle of the film. It was very difficult for me because while I was developing a great attachment to my daughter, I was talking to men in the camps who were missing their children a lot. These men are away from their families for two or three years at a time. This became the theme of the film.

Some labourers in the film express pride in working on iconic buildings in Dubai, while supporting their families in their home countries. Did you see this type of pride a lot among the labourers? That sense of pride pervades the film. Despite the hardships they face – working in the heat, missing their families – all our characters felt pride in being dignified earners who can support their families back home. Also, by sending their wages home, the labourers are helping the economies of the Indian subcontinent. That doesn’t make living in the camps any easier, but this is the reality of any migrant worker across the world.

Will the film be censored for release in the UAE? The film must pass censor clearance before its release. You never know what the censors are going to cut. I don’t think there is anything in the film that they need to cut.

What impact do you hope the film will make? I think something has started happening already. There was a wonderful reaction of empathy among the audience at Burj Park where the film premiered at Dubai International Film Festival. After the film, we brought the characters of the film on stage and the crowd of over 1,200 festival-goers stood to applaud. Then the cast sang for the audience, totally impromptu. It was a moment. I hope there will be more moments like this as the wider public see the film and give these labourers the credit they deserve.