Femme-empowering docu “Nearby Sky” proves beyond a doubt that there’s no one better at showing off the beauties of her country than leading Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Alghanem. Plus, she has a great subject: Fatima Bint Ali Alhameli, the UAE’s only woman to enter her beasts in camel beauty pageants. A fearless character who defines the term “gumption,” Alhameli pushes herself forward in tradition-breaking ways, yet she’s fully connected with the customs of her people, looking to rock the boat without toppling the vessel. Dubai’s award for best nonfiction feature should propel “Sky” into the fest firmament.
The docu’s pleasures come from the combination of a charismatic subject with poetic visuals, and as with her past works (“Amal,” “Sounds of the Sea”), Alghanem demonstrates her sensitivity to the desert attractions of sand and sky, along with an artistic appreciation for the unique elements of her culture. Though likely a diminutive figure, Alhameli is larger than life, determined to enter her pampered and comely creatures into Abu Dhabi’s all-male realm of camel beauty pageants. The prizes aren’t bad: In one it’s a Range Rover, in another it’s a Rolls.
As much as she’d like to win — and she really, really wants to win — the biggest battle for Alhameli is leveling the playing field. Pageant organizers either disqualify her animals outright or treat her with condescension, and many participants and onlookers express discomfort at the sight of a woman entering a male sphere so publicly. Even one of her sons is uneasy about the whole idea, but another, more supportive, says his mother’s drive fills the gap left by her widowhood.
The loquacious Alhameli, born in the deserts of southern Abu Dhabi, appears in every other respect to be a woman of tradition: She frequently wears the thin face mask called a burqa (not to be confused with the all-enveloping cloak of the same name); has a Sudanese assistant to handle any physical tasks apart from, say, shampooing the camels; and prefers her desert home to the house in the city. She’s also a champion promoter of dromedary delicacies, from the foam of fresh camel milk (“it’s the ice cream of the Bedouins”) to the curative properties of their urine.
The mix of Alhameli and Alghanem is a fortuitous one, since the helmer’s rich eye and sensitivity to the world around her are combined with a respectful feel for the quirky and amusing. Benjamin Pritchard’s lensing is evocative and cinematic, with a refined sense of framing; stunning drone shots over the desert dunes conjure an exotic yet familiar world, and even slo-mo is used judiciously.