Mountain Boy review: A love letter to Emirati heritage and humanity

Zainab Shaheen's first feature tells the story of a 12-year-old boy with autism who travels across the UAE in search of his lost family

Mountain Boy tells the story of a 12 year-old boy who is ostracised by his tribe. Photos: Desert Rose Films
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It is clear from the outset of Mountain Boy, the first feature film by Emirati director Zainab Shaheen, that it is a work made with love, both for country and the human condition.

One could watch Shaheen’s film on mute and still be impressed. It opens in the mountains of Fujairah in 1959, and within moments it is clear that care was put into each shot to capture the beauty of the landscape and the rich culture of the UAE’s people.

The film begins by telling the story of a young girl separated from her family when a storm sets in. She is scared and helpless but survives the ordeal because she is discovered by a 12-year-old boy named Suhail, who shelters her before guiding her back to her village.

The girl notices that there is something different about Suhail. What makes him different is the crux of the film. Suhail has autism and experiences the world in a different way. The girl realises, as does each person who interacts with him, that those differences are not disabilities – they are superpowers.

Suhail, played by Emirati actor Naser Al Messabi, proves to be exceptional in every situation that he finds himself in. He is able to predict the weather. He can seemingly talk to animals. He is an expert navigator. At times, his exceptionality verges on the supernatural.

Each of these abilities comes to light when situations arise. After Suhail returns the girl to her village, he sets off on a journey of his own. His mother died when giving birth and his father blamed Suhail for her death. He has lived in isolation as a result but, with his newfound friend’s encouragement, Suhail ventures across the desert to Abu Dhabi to track down his mother’s family.

As Suhail travels across the country, his discoveries, predictions and interactions feel like miracles. At a farm in Al Ain, he senses an undiscovered spring beneath the surface, much to the delight of those around him. On a boat in Dibba Bay, he warns sailors of an impending storm that only he knows is coming. At a market in Abu Dhabi, he calms a wayward camel, leading onlookers to suspect he has the power to communicate with it.

If this feels like a children’s story, there’s an explanation. The film is based on 2017 book The Boy Who Knew Mountains, by the naturalised Emirati-Australian author Michele Ziolkowski. The film’s producer Nancy Paton, founder of Desert Rose Films, was inspired to adapt the story into a film because of how her autistic son responded to the work, hoping to pass that feeling on to many more through the power of film.

Shaheen made the film with care in every aspect. The costuming, cinematography and casting show that this is an Emirati film through and through, with more aspects of the UAE’s rich heritage shown on screen than any other. It even explores the many nuances between the people of each emirate and the contrasting beauty of the country's mountains, coasts and dunes.

She also attempted to represent autism with as much care and accuracy as possible, casting an autistic actor after auditioning 19 other autistic young men in a dedicated search across UAE schools.

There is one potential unfortunate side for some in the way that the story portrays autism, however. For many with the condition, films and other media that portray autism as a superpower, even if made with the best of intentions, can be detrimental.

One Emirati with autism, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells The National: “I understand how some might need these sorts of stories to understand and make sense of their differences, whether positive or negative. But as someone who has tried to put all my difficulties into that framework, not much of it feels like a superpower.”

Mountain Boy

Director: Zainab Shaheen

Starring: Naser Al Messabi

Rating: 3/5

Some people on the autism spectrum are of the view that if their condition is seen as a superpower, unreasonable expectations can be placed upon them. They believe it frames the value of their lives on the tricks it is assumed they can perform, rather than understanding them as people.

In Mountain Boy, Suhail may be a miracle worker, but the story may have been even more touching if he was just a kind young man — without miraculous powers — whose immense empathy, in turn, helped others be empathetic to him.

But different types of representation empower people differently. Perhaps for many young people with autism out there, Suhail’s beautifully rendered fable will be exactly what they need to help them achieve their own potential, however ordinary or extraordinary. For others, we can but hope for a more realistic portrayal of what life with autism is actually like.

Mountain Boy will screen at the Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh, taking place from April 14 to 18

Updated: April 12, 2024, 6:02 PM
Mountain Boy

Director: Zainab Shaheen

Starring: Naser Al Messabi

Rating: 3/5