A children’s book about an autistic Emirati boy who lives alone in the mountains of Fujairah and has a unique understanding of how to navigate the jagged, rocky terrain is being adapted into a feature film.
Mountain Boy is being directed by Zainab Shaheen, the Emirati filmmaker behind Arabic films Journey of Hope and Dates to Mars. It is produced by Desert Rose Films, a female-focused production company in Abu Dhabi.
The story for Mountain Boy is based on the 2017 children’s book The Boy Who Knew the Mountains, written by Emirati-Australian author Michele Ziolkowski.
Set in 1959, it tells the story of Suhail, a 12-year-old boy who is ostracised by his tribe as they do not understand the nature of his exceptional memory and navigational skills. He soon sets out on a life-affirming journey, travelling from Fujairah to Abu Dhabi, encountering several people who help him gain more skills and see his autism as a power.
Nancy Paton, founder of Desert Rose Films, says she was inspired to turn the book into a film after seeing how her son, who is autistic, responded to the work.
“I went to a reading of the book with my son,” she says. “He was four at the time and there were lots of mums and children in the classroom. It was a powerful book, and it was quite interesting that the children understood how the boy was feeling. As a filmmaker, I realised there is something here that's quite unique and special.”
Paton then set out to find the author. She was surprised to find that Ziolkowski, like herself, is Australian-Polish, having settled in the UAE years ago. A naturalised Emirati, Ziolkowski had written The Boy Who Knew the Mountains after being inspired by her son, who Paton says has an affinity with the Fujairah mountains.
“I really got to know her family and her son,” Paton says. “Suhail loves walking those mountains. He remembers paths and certain rocks. [Ziolkowski] was initially interested in making an animation out of the book, but I thought the story would be better as a live action. I was very adamant about finding a boy who is autistic to play the part of Suhail.”
The film’s investors, however, were worried whether they would be able to find someone to play the leading part in time. Paton visited several schools across the UAE that were dedicated to children with autism.
“We auditioned 20 boys with autism,” she says. “All fantastic and lovely, and we were grateful that they could attend. But when Naser [Saleh] walked in, we immediately knew we had found our lead actor. By then, we had started to panic that we weren’t going to find the right person because he has to be Emirati and speak in an Emirati accent.”
Though there were challenges, Paton says it paid off in the long run.
“There were amazing rewards on a daily basis from this boy,” she says. “To have him here, to work with him and to see him shine on screen — Naser has made us laugh and cry watching him. I guess that was always my hope, that the story would allow the audience to watch it and see the world through different eyes.”
Mountain Boy also aims to offer a novel perspective of the UAE’s natural landscape.
The film’s director, Shaheen, says while there may be plenty of stories that highlight the UAE’s deserts, there aren’t many depictions of its mountains and coast in film. Currently in the tail-end of its production phase, Mountain Boy was filmed in various locations across Fujairah and Abu Dhabi, with a special focus dedicated to the mountainous terrain of the country’s east coast.
“I wanted to show the beauty of the UAE with this film. I wanted to show natural landscapes like how they are depicted Hollywood and fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings. In countries across the Arabian Gulf, we don’t see that much. When this area is presented in foreign films, it is usually portrayed as this yellowish, hot place. I wanted to focus on parts that the world may not know about,” Shaheen says.
“The film will also show how people lived in 1959. There is a message in the film where we try to explain why the past is so important for us, and how it affects our future and where we are going.”
Though a native of Fujairah, Shaheen says scouting for locations helped her come across breathtaking sites that she herself had been oblivious to.
“We tried our best to find a place that visualises what’s in the script and story,” she says. “I was so happy to find the right spaces, and I would like to visit them even after shooting. When we were filming in the mountains, we went through all the seasons in one month.”
Those residing in the mountains were initially suspicious of the film and its intentions, adds Shaheen. However, as the crew spent more time with them, the local inhabitants began to help in the film’s productions with many being cast in secondary roles.
“They were really helpful,” Shaheen says. “In the beginning, it was hard to communicate with them. They didn’t understand what we were shooting. They said it was their land and they didn’t want us going near them. Now, we’re a part of a family.”
Mountain Boy is currently in its final stages of production, and Paton says she hopes it will be ready in time for the festival circuit next year. There are also plans to have it featured at the UN Climate Change Conference Cop28, which will be hosted in the UAE.
“We are on schedule,” she says. “But there is still post-production and a few other elements. Nothing is final, but we are pushing for a few festivals.”