Posted by: Andrew Pask | October 12, 2010

City Films @ the VIFF (Pt. 3): Three Sad Tigers


I was back at the VIFF for a nice chunk of time over Thanksgiving weekend and the days leading up to it.  Last Thursday I went to check out City of Life, a swirling narrative of life in Dubai… with a half dozen characters living their lives before — boom — they all come colliding together at the end.  It was a catchy, entertaining film.  Much less focused on the city than I thought it might be, but a fun watch all around.

What did catch my eye, from an urban planning perspective, was a short film that proceeded it called Three Sad Tigers (UK, Spain, 2010, 14 minutes).  Directed by David Munoz, it’s an all-too-brief documentary piece that records the story of three Bangladeshi tradesmen – Ahmed, Haroon and Mohammed – who were recruited to work in Dubai during the city’s construction boom.

After fronting money to in return for the promise of visa paperwork and high paying jobs, the three find themselves working for pittance. Unable to repay the loans they took out to get to the Dubai and forced to work in abysmal conditions,  each suffers a further wrong when they are unceremoniously cut lose by the illegal contractor that had hired them and told that that they would have to return home.

Of course, when you look at Dubai – or any city for that matter – you don’t often see these sorts of stories reflected in the built environment.  They become part of an invisible history, purposefully left out of the dominant narratives of place.  This isn’t a foreign practice either.  In BC we’ve only just started to account for the galling and racialized labour practices that built the railway across the country. (Of the several thousand Chinese workers recruited for the construction of the BC section, 600 workers died.  One for every few kilometers of track).

Even in Vancouver proper the role of foreign labour in city-building is often obscured.  The ‘erasure’ isn’t a matter of history either.  Only a few short months ago a Provincial Labour Tribunal ruled against SELI (partners with SNC Lavalin on the construction of the Canada Line), finding that the company had discriminated against the Latin American workers it had brought in to work on the transit system “on the basis of race, colour, ancestry and place of origin.”  Not insignificantly either – SELI was paying the latino workers far less (and providing worse living conditions) than Europeans that had been hired to do exactly the same job.  It was a story that, given the timing (Olympics), did not receive the press that it deserved.

Three Sad Tigers is a short film, true, but it functions as a strong reminder of this darker side of city building.  And while Dubai (and Bangladash) may seem remote in the course of viewing this film, it’s important to check that thought against what goes on in our own city.  Perhaps, viewed in that way, Tigers is also a good place-holder until we get a film on our own local labour history and the different hands that have helped build Vancouver.


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