Dubai fest organizers have been keen not to forget the cinematic efforts of native Emiratis and have a dedicated Emirati sidebar — dubbed Emirati Voices — to showcase the films from U.A.E. helmers.
And with good reason: With neighboring emirate Abu Dhabi also unveiling a series of initiatives designed to nurture and support local filmmakers, a new generation of creatively ambitious Emirati filmmakers is emerging to fill these slots.
The likes of Nayla Al Khaja (“Arabana”), Hani Al-Shaibani (“Dream”), Ali Mostafa (“Under the Sun”), Waleed Al Shehhi (“Aushba’s Well”), Manal Bin Amro (“Stuck Face”) and Khalid Al-Mahmood (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”) are taking their first bigscreen steps on the way to creating a grassroots film scene in the U.A.E.
Their efforts to date may have generally been ultra-low-budget shorts shot on digital — with the exception of Al-Shaibani, who has just completed his second feature, “Jumaa and the Sea” — but, adhering to the old maxim that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, they are in their own way laying the foundations for the future.
“A few years ago there wouldn’t have even been the need to ask a question about Emirati filmmakers, but in the last five or six years the number of films made yearly in the U.A.E. has risen continuously,” says Dubai fest artistic director Masoud Amralla Al-Ali, who has done more than most to support Emirati filmmakers when he founded the Emirates Film Competition in 2002. “The foundation is still not yet established, but the will and local talent is plenty. This last year there were over 160 shorts produced, and in the last three years three feature films have been made, with others in various stages of production.”
Many of these up-and-coming helmers have an ambitious creativity that belies their often modest resources. Citing influences from Fellini and Scorsese to Ozu and Tarkovsky, helmers’ shoestring budgets aren’t stopping some provocative work.
Al Khaja’s “Arabana,” for example, is a deliberately elliptical portrayal of child abuse that caused quite a stir when it bowed in Dubai. The U.A.E.’s first femme helmer is now working on an even more controversial subject, which she laces with humor, in new project “Hajis” — the trials and tribulations that Emirati girls face when going on a first date without getting caught. “I want to film it, get it finished and put it on YouTube,” Al Khaja says. “I spoke to so many people here, and we all had our own stories about this. I just knew it had to be turned into a movie.”
Sometimes the filmmaking impulse can develop from something even more existential.
“For me, filmmaking was a natural step as I used to love writing poetry,” Al-Mahmood says. “As it turned out, it’s more than just a form of expression. It’s more like a window to a different world and people. Realizing I was one of the few people out there working in this field in the Emirates, it became a passionate duty to enrich this cultural aspect.”
One of the biggest challenges facing these tyro filmmakers is educating their compatriots to watch more local pics, particularly shorts. With viewing habits so dominated by TV and the occasional movie, finding a cultural space at home can be taxing.
“It is a challenge to enforce the habit of watching short films into the mentality of people who live in the region who are not used to them,” Al Shehhi says. “But filmmaking has been my dream and controlled my thoughts since I was a little kid. There is a relationship between my soul and the light which makes up the image.”