Although underdeveloped, filmmaking has been picking up in the region, boosted by festivals such as the Dubai Film Festival. Directors like Abdulla al Kaabi are leading the way for change.
By Ruchi Shroff
How did you become interested in directing?
We used to live right next to a VHS rental store and through my parents’ membership I would rent, like, five movies a week. I was obsessed with films; I was a film junkie growing up. I worked as a presenter when I was 16 and 17 on Dubai TV. I was also modelling on the side until I was 22. I was always fascinated with production and knew that I wanted to be a film director. So I packed my bags and went to Paris to pursue a masters in filmmaking. And that’s when it all started.
Describe what it was like making your first film?
I made my first film in 2005. It was a short film that I shot with friends. When I was at university, my film professor was director Kathryn Bigelow’s brother (Kathryn won the 2009 Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker). He was the one who really inspired me. He really instilled in me the passion of film-making and working in this business is a lifetime commitment. You have to devote time, energy and sometimes your mental health into making a film. When I went to France, I shot a couple of short films, but the most acclaimed one was The Philosopher, which I made in 2010. The film was based on a short script I wrote that a big producer in France found very interesting. So that is how I kicked off my professional journey.
Any films or directors that have been big inspirations for you?
(Pedro) Almodovar. I love his work. Every time I watch his films I am fascinated. I love the art direction. I believe if I weren’t a director I would be an art director. I love beautiful images, beautiful art direction; I love giving the eyes a feast onscreen. I love his All About My Mother and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. I am co-writing my upcoming feature film, Banaat Fahma, with Almodovar’s writer, and he told me that the director has seen the script and given his feedback.
Are there any themes that you’d like to explore in your films?
Women. The film I am working on is about Arab women who are universal in their problems, have secrets, fall in love, cry, laugh, deal with societal issues, religion, etc. I would like to show Arab women who are really strong. People around the world don’t understand that women in Arabia are really strong – I have a strong mother, strong aunts, strong sisters. They really are the fabric of society; maybe not in the Westernized sense. I am tired of seeing victimized Arab women in film and want to show something different. I think with the Internet audiences have become more aware and do not usually conform to Hollywood’s views of the Middle East. I believe it is our job as directors to use this form of art, which is so beautiful, to create cultural bridges between the East and West. I know more about certain cities that I have never visited through films, so you learn a lot from cinema.
Could you tell us a little more about your upcoming film?
We have not settled on an English title yet, but it is called Banaat Fahma in Arabic. I am thinking about calling it Of Owls and Hoots in English. The symbol of the film is an owl because a lot of people don’t know that you can find owls in the UAE. To me owls represent wisdom and patience. The story is set in the 1980s and is about an old, blind woman who collects her daughters for dinner at her mansion. At dinner she begins to reveal a secret, but dies while telling the story. The movie looks at the daughters trying to unearth the mother’s secret. The movie will be out at the end of 2013 and will be shot entirely in the UAE. It will have some of the biggest Arab actresses as well as new faces. It will also be quite controversial because I am questioning many things in the film, which should be interesting. I have been working on this for a year and a half, but don’t have the budget details yet.
Is it necessary to make different types of films?
Each film is different and depends on the director working on a film. I want to make a film that is art house, but disguised as a commercial film because we want to make a sustainable industry. The government is supporting us right now as a start-up and we need to soon be sustainable to support the next wave of directors. The new directors are different in the genres and themes they explore, so there is a lot of variety.
Would you move on to more commercial topics if given the opportunity?
Each feature film is like a marriage. So it all depends on who you are marrying – an art house or commercial film. You give years to each project and it is hard to map all OF the projects. On average, most directors have worked on maybe 10 or 12 films by the time they reach the age of 70. I would love to work on different types of cinema and genres and break into the international scene.
Who would be your dream actors to work with?
I have many. My dream sequence is Tilda Swinton fighting Monica Bellucci on the marble floor of the opera in Paris. That’s the scene I have in my head for a thriller.
Do you think the Dubai Film Festival will become as big as the Cannes Festival?
Never say never. We have done so much in the eight years that we have been around. What differentiates Dubai is that we dream here and we make our dreams come true. Or else we would not have a palm-shaped island or the tallest tower.
What are the barriers to filmmaking in the region?
There is no film industry to speak of here. The last Emirati feature we had was last year and there is none coming out this year. So if we are talking about one film coming out of a country each year, it is not really an industry. I am sure there are intentions to build something, but it will not happen overnight. We do have a wave of directors coming out, but they can’t do anything without full technical support. There are no producers, cinematographers, sound technicians and no professional crew that can work on a professional film. I wish we can diversify the industry here, but it is still in a very early stage. I have never shot here, so I will learn about the challenges of finding actors once I start on my new feature.
What are the best and worst parts of being a filmmaker from the Middle East?
I think the best part is that this place is full of secrets. You can dig and you are going to find jewels. It’s like untouched water and that is the most interesting and exciting thing about being a filmmaker from this region. It is easier for me to uncover some of these things because I am a local. There have been earlier attempts with disastrous results and the only thing directors got was a cultural adviser. The worst thing is the lack of people’s belief in you and the industry.
What would your advice be to budding filmmakers in the region?
Believe in yourself. Shoot films with any means you can, including mobile phones.
How did this partnership with Cartier come about?
I had a meeting with the team of Cartier in Dubai following the shooting of my french film. My film was about to be premiered in Dubai and I had already heard of how much Cartier supports the world of arts and culture, and indeed, they were extremely supportive. The partnership developed from then on. This is our second year and I am proud to say that I have kept my timings accurate ever since thanks to the Calibre Cartier watches.
What do you think Cartier found in you that interested them and vice-versa?
To be associated to Cartier is a great privilege indeed. Their watches give me confidence and style that add to my career as a filmmaker. Cartier embodies the epitome of French class, elegance, timelessness, and these are the qualities that I aspire to for my films. One of the greatest rewards is to meet the team responsible for all the magic behind Cartier; they have welcomed me among them and truly believed in my films.
What do you feel makes you and Cartier a good match, in terms of image?
Timeless pieces. Cartier is known for their eternal works of art when it comes to design. That is something I dream to achieve, timeless classic films. With their support, I don’t think its going to be a far-fetch dream, so I am forever thankful to Cartier.