Emirati film Dalma is a riveting character-driven story told on the historic island

Written and directed by Humaid Alsuwaidi, the Abu Dhabi-set drama had its world premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival

Hira Mahmood plays Dana, the protagonist in Dalma. Photo: Red Sea International Film Festival
Powered by automated translation

In Dalma, an Emirati woman moves from Abu Dhabi city to the titular island in Al Dhafra region in search of a fresh start after a troubled past. But as she sets up her new life, opening a bed and breakfast, plus a cafe, she soon finds herself pitted against the island’s residents.

Written and directed by Humaid Alsuwaidi, Dalma marked its worldwide premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival, where it is also in competition.

The crux of the film, as Alsuwaidi describes, is about “a woman in a man’s world”. However, as Dalma begins revealing the island’s tensions, the film is propelled into a riveting study of characters with layered and interwoven complexities.

Dana, the Emirati woman, is at Dalma’s volatile centre. Portrayed by Hira Mahmood, the character is an anxious and mysterious one. She is evidently embittered by the shape her life is taking, and that acrimony hones a defensive, and somewhat vengeful, bend.

Met with animosity on the island and not wanting to wilt from her rights, she begins a tug of war with those around her. As such, Dana becomes wound in a vicious cycle that drives the film to unexpected territories.

Mahmood says Dana was a difficult character to embody, and she was hesitant when she was first offered the role. “I read the script many times, just to figure out who Dana is,” she says. “Her character is very intense. She is always anxious and defensive. After I studied the character, I began feeling what she was feeling.”

As part of her research, Mahmood began consulting psychology experts to try to get to the root of Dana’s mental state. “I introduced them to the character, and asked them what they thought of her, what problems could she have had,” Mahmood says.

At the forefront of Dana’s abrasive relationship with those on the island is Ghaith, depicted by Rashed Hasan. A doctor who studied abroad before returning to his native Dalma, Ghaith is at first portrayed as calm and gregarious. His love for the island is evident as he steadfastly refuses job opportunities that will make him move. However, Dana’s arrival begins to unravel distresses on the island that soon follow him home. The character undergoes a spine-chilling transformation, which Hasan says, allude to a “loss of innocence”.

“The process was very digestible with the director,” Hasan says. “He managed to create an interesting character in the script. He recommended I read some novels, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, which talk about the loss of innocence, the fall from grace, the loss of a child inside of you.”

Hasan also served as one of the film’s producers. However, he says Alsuwaidi went great lengths to ensure a clear divide between his efforts on and off camera. “He created this environment for me. If I'm in a day of acting, that’s it, he makes sure I’m not connected to anything with the production.”

Both Mahmood and Hasan had worked with Alsuwaidi before, in his 2018 film Musk, in which they both had supporting roles. For Dalma, however, non-actors from the island were cast in supporting roles, which gives the film an authentic edge.

The cast and crew spent almost two months in early 2020 filming on the island, a process that took time due to unpredictable weather. The island’s stillness and its tightly woven social fabric is evident in the film. Its waters and marine life are an essential component in the film, not just as a backdrop but also as devices of plot and symbolism.

Dalma isn’t just a setting but also has a starring role in the eponymous film. Its historic significance, being one of the UAE's oldest settlements, is touched upon in the film, with Dana even saying it wasn't clear just how long the island was inhabited by humans and that “there are more graves than houses here”.

“The people were very kind,” Alsuwaidi says. “And their accent was very particular.”

Alsuwaidi, who is from Abu Dhabi, first travelled to the island in 2019. Unexplored by many of the UAE’s citizens and long-time residents, Dalma is a unique setting amid the UAE’s natural landscape. “It's just a gorgeous place,” Alsuwaidi says, adding that the island offers respite from the huddle of skyscrapers that dominate many of the cities across the UAE. Seeing the island, Alsuwaidi says he knew he had to make it the location of his next film.

“It's about 50 km off the coast. You have to take the ferry for a couple of hours to get there,” Alsuwaidi says. “It's almost like a time capsule. It was the quietest place I've ever been in.”

Updated: December 07, 2023, 3:04 AM