The filmmaking scene in the UAE, much like the country itself, is young. However, over the past decade, it has been enriched by a number of new filmmakers who have sought to not only celebrate local traditions, but also confront certain societal standards through film.
Despite challenges, filmmakers are still persevering to tell their stories on screen, most notably through the short film form. As the country celebrates its National Day tomorrow, we take a look at six must-watch titles by Emirati directors.
Written and directed by Abdulrahman Al Madani, Laymoon (Lemon) draws back the curtain on a very specific kind of domestic friction: those found in a polygamous relationship.
“I got inspired by a news article, which was talking about a workshop for housewives that taught them how to learn to accept a second wife,” Al Madani says. Difficulty in accepting a husband’s second marriage is common in certain households, he says, and many women turn to support groups in order to learn how to adapt to this change.
“I found it both amusing and sad,” Al Madani says. “Why do we always need to tell a woman how to act? And nobody puts that pressure on men. So that’s how the idea for the film came up.”
Laymoon explores the issue by telling the story of a housewife who tries to put the spark back into her marriage only to be faced with the dismay of her husband as he begins thinking about marrying someone else. "The lemon in the film is something of a metaphor of the relationship between the husband and wife," Al Madani says. "It shows that no matter how good the lemon is, it's not good enough for the husband."
The film, which debuted last January at the Sharjah Film Platform, is available on Vimeo.
A heart-gripping thriller with a resonant ending, Nayla Al Khaja's Animal is a semi-autobiographical film, which tells the story of a seven-year-old girl living under her father's iron fist in a house with nightmarish contradictions.
The 12-minute film has been screened at a handful of international festivals, picking up the Jury Special Prize for Best Short Fiction at the Italian Movie Awards in 2017.
Al Khaja's first official short film Arabana, which centres on child abuse, premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2007. The same year, the festival awarded her the title of Best Emirati Filmmaker.
Animal is available on Al Khaja's official website, Naylaalkhaja.com.
Expansive frames of the rolling desert, epic slow-motion shots of galloping horses in Bedouin trapping, and beautifully choreographed kung fu fight scenes make Forthcoming a mesmerising, thrilling watch.
The 2018 film, written and directed by Aiham Al Subaihi, pits a Bedouin couple adept in martial arts against a group of bandits who are determined for revenge.
Al Subaihi says Forthcoming came about from a coalescence of his love for Quentin Tarantino's directorial style and his desire to make a kung fu film featuring Bedouins, who he says "are a connection to our culture and our past". He also wanted to communicate the beauty of the desert.
However, shooting in the desert also brought with it a number of complications. For one, he was forced to shoot the film across two sweltering days in May. "Ideally, we would've shot at a cooler time, but we had to film in May. Thankfully, some clouds came in on the second day and that cooled things down a bit, but still, all the actors were sunburnt. Trying to capture the beauty of the desert came with the toughness of being there."
Al Subaihi says there are a number of challenges facing aspiring Emirati filmmakers, including trying to make a living from the craft.
"There's no path for filmmakers to take and make enough money to continue. I don't know whether it's lack of marketing or faith in the Emirati story, but I think that's one of the main challenges."
Forthcoming, which was made with the support of Image Nation, premiered at the Arab Film Studio in 2018, before screening at Comic Con as well as at a few international film festivals, including the Jordan Short Film Festival and Al Ain Film Festival. The film is available on Vimeo.
At 27 minutes, Sarmad is one of the longest films on this list, but it is well worth the watch. At the centre of this tense and enigmatic film is Omran, who finds himself at a hospital with no idea how he got there. He starts following a set of clues that lead him to discover a film especially recorded for him.
Its director is Abdulla Al Hemairi, who besides writing the script, took on the starring role in the film. The idea for it, he says, came after a visit to a hospital where he encountered a man "who was crying ceaselessly. I kept wondering why he was crying so much." Al Hemairi then wondered whether the man was trying to get a grip of a memory that was quickly fading. "That was the expression of the plot in the film. How essential our memories are to living a full life."
Al Hemairi says among the number of challenges facing up-and-coming Emirati filmmakers, is a lack of a supportive infrastructure.
"So far, if you have a passion for filmmaking, you have to see it through yourself," he says. "It is very hard to find support. We need film festivals again, somewhere we can meet peers and other cinema professionals."
Sarmad is available to watch on OSN Streaming.
The titular character in this short film is a talented young actor who wants to pursue a career in New York, but faces her mother's demands for her to marry and settle down. As she makes up her mind to go, her father's sudden death throws her back into that dilemma.
The film's writer and director, Mohammed Al Hammadi, says the idea came to him while he was editing another project, a sci-fi movie called The Remaining Time. "One of the editors began critiquing the actors in the production," Al Hammadi says.
"She was using very specific acting terms, which showed how well informed she was with the craft. Turns out, she didn't want to be an editor as much as she wanted to act. But her family didn't approve."
Immediately after the conversation, Al Hammadi began writing the film's script and started shooting it after attaining funding from the Sharjah Film Platform. "There were a number of challenges with the shoot. Our producer dropped out a week before we were scheduled to shoot, so I had to scramble to find equipment. Thankfully we managed, but even if we hadn't gotten our hands on a camera, I would have shot it on my iPhone."
The film, which premiered at the Sharjah Film Platform in 2018, is available on Vimeo. Al Hammadi's sci-fi short The Remaining Time is worth checking out, too, and is available to watch on OSN Streaming.
A delicately crafted horror film that leaves just the right amount open to interpretation, Hana Kazim's Makr tells the story of a fake imam who visits the home of a man who thinks his wife is possessed by a jinn. The imam seeks to con the couple, only to find out that things are not as they seem.
The 15-minute film touches upon a number of themes from wavering faith to parenthood. It was co-written by Kazim and her brother, Faris, and it won the June Award at the Short to the Point International Film Festival last year, and the Best International Film Award at the Short and Sweet Film Festival this year.
Kazim was the first Emirati student to graduate from the prestigious American Film Institute Conservatory in Los Angeles with a master's degree in film production. Makr is available on YouTube.