'Before We Forget': Emirati director Nawaf Al Janahi on making a film in the pandemic

The Arabic film, showing with English subtitles, released in Vox Cinemas last week

A decade after releasing his last feature, Sea Shadow, Emirati director Nawaf Al Janahi has returned with an intergenerational tale from Saudi Arabia that gives a moving regional spin on the road trip film.

Before We Forget tells the story of Mohammad, a doctor who finds himself in severe debt after a string of bad business decisions. Threatened with imprisonment, the doctor desperately tries to find a way to come up with the cash. He eventually learns of a large sum of money that his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, had buried years ago in the old family farm. Thus he embarks on a cross-country trip across Saudi Arabia – a journey that will force him to take a hard look at himself and his choices – with his father and son, who he is not on good terms with.

The Arabic film, showing with English subtitles, was released across Vox Cinemas in the Gulf last Thursday. Produced by DKL Studio, it marks the feature film debut of emerging Saudi talents including Mishal Almutairi, who plays the distressed and anxious Dr Mohammad, as well as Ghazi Hamad, who takes on the role of Mohammad’s lucid and ambitious son Omar. Veteran Saudi actor and Scales star Ibrahim Al-Hasawi plays the iron-willed father, Ismail.

Finding the right actors for the film, Al Janahi says, was a challenge, mostly owing to the constrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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I have a story in the pipeline that’s set in the US, another in Egypt and another in Bahrain.
Nawaf Al Janahi, director

“It was the first time in my career that I auditioned actors online,” he tells The National. “It’s not how I work. I like to meet the actors face to face. But it was the only possible way to do it. We had to adapt.”

The pandemic forced the production team to adapt in more ways than one. Al Janahi says he initially intended to shoot the entirety of Before We Forget in Saudi Arabia, where the film’s story is set. However, production was moved to Abu Dhabi as Covid-19 restrictions and travel regulations became increasingly hard to predict.

“It was not practical to plan a film like that. All of us [cast and crew] were here [in the UAE]. We really wanted to film in Saudi Arabia. That was the initial pitch for the film. We tried pushing production for some time but it was just not practical.”

Al Janahi says he’s been planning the film since 2016, when he first came across an early version of the script by scriptwriter Ron Thompson. The narrative, that pits three generations of the same family against each other, appealed to Al Janahi, who then worked on developing the story for a Saudi setting, adding several nuances that will strike a chord with regional viewers.

The final script is “very similar” to Thompson’s original version, Al Janahi says. “But I changed a lot of things when I had to move the story to our culture and our region.

September 28. Nawaf Al Janahi, 34, Director of the Emirate film SeaShadow. September 28, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)

“I worked on it on my own for a while. I then tested the waters with a few producers but couldn’t find a path for the film. I then became busy with other projects until I spoke with Fadi [Ismail], founder of DKL Studio in 2019 and we decided to make the film.”

The director says working on a film that is set in Saudi Arabia is no different than if it was set here in the UAE. “A story is a story to me,” he says. “I have a story in the pipeline that’s set in the US, another in Egypt and another in Bahrain. A story is a story as long as you connect with it and it has a universal dimension to it.”

Before We Forget marks Al Janahi’s third feature-length work. His first, The Circle, was released in 2009 to critical acclaim and was described as a major turning point in Emirati and Gulf cinema. His second, Sea Shadow, was shown in more than 27 countries, making it one of the most widely distributed Emirati films.

Al Janahi says he is often used to his films embarking on a festival circuit before they are available to the wider public. Before We Forget marks the first time that one of his films debuts in cinemas.

“It’s a little bit different, of course, because we got used to having the first public screening in a festival environment. And even then, films took a while until they were shown in cinemas, like what happened with Sea Shadow. But this time, we premiered right away in cinemas. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Updated: October 26th 2021, 8:12 AM