Documenting the Arab Gulf by Hearing South Asia

By Dale Hudson
Submitted to Session P4876 (Fraught Docs: Questioning Categories and Exploring Infrastructural Challenges of Documentary Filmmaking from the Arab World, 2017 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Derived from the French term _documentaire_, documentary filmmaking has historically privileged visual elements over acoustic ones. During the early twentieth century, documentaries were held to present “serious travelogue,” rather than scenic views, a distinction particularly important in consideration of the orientalist treatment of the Arab World. Perhaps nowhere remained as underrepresented as the Arabian Peninsula. An early documentary on the Trucial States, NET Journal’s _Farewell Arabia_ (1967) uses expository voiceover to explain scenic views of Bedouin traditions, allegedly vanishing beneath the sounds of automobiles, jet engines, oil wells, and foreign advisers.

This paper examines two recent documentaries, produced and set in the United Arab Emirates, that layer visual images with the sounds of South Asia. Lebanese filmmaker Mahmoud Kaaboor’s _Champ of the Camp_ (2013) examines the lives of South Asian expatriates who work in construction and maintenance around Dubai. Organized by middle-class South Asian women, the “Camp ka Champ” talent-show makes audible the role of popular Hindi and contemporary Bollywood song in the transnational configuration of Dubai. Contestants communicate in various South Asian languages. Comparably, Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Alghanem’s _Sounds of the Sea_ (2014) recovers a rapidly disappearing earlier moment in the connections between the Arab Gulf and South Asia in the sea songs that sailors performed as they navigate their boats from port to port. The folklore society of the northern emirate learns that they must import singers from India to perform the Arabic-language songs for the heritage festival since no Emiratis remember them.

The two films, along with others by South Asian filmmakers, notably CAMP’s _From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf_ (2009–2013), engage an ongoing interconnection between the Arab Gulf and South Asia through its acoustic devices, thus offering a way to conceive documentary practice, not only in terms of complex relationships between sounds and images, but also in terms of interconnected regional and ethnic contexts. The films convey the role of acoustic images in communicating a sense of the transcultural dimensions of life in the Arab Gulf that might reorient investigations in Arab documentary away from preoccupations with the West and towards the Indian Ocean, that is, away from the civil wars and political corruptions that followed colonialism and imperialism towards other anchoring points that can transform self and rebuilt subjectivity in a part of the world largely ignored in documentary studies.