Hassan Kiyany death: UAE's creative community mourns loss of cutting-edge Emirati filmmaker

The multi-talented artist was at the forefront of the local smartphone photography movement and created the UAE’s first virtual-reality film

Hassan Kiyany filming his documentary 'Zaabil iDoc' in 2014. Courtesy Ammar Al Attar
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Emirati filmmaker Hassan Kiyany was always looking to employ cutting-edge technology in his work. The founder of Kiyany Media and Editvid, who died on Thursday, aged 38, was at the forefront of the local smartphone photography movement in the early 2010s and saw the storytelling potential of the iPhone camera earlier than most.

He was also behind the UAE's first interactive film, Zaabil iDoc, and was a firm believer in the ability of virtual-reality technology to tell immersive stories.

“He was doing smartphone photography, teaching a workshop on it and making beautiful work long before anybody was taking it seriously,” Mohamed Somji, director at Gulf Photo Plus, tells The National.

Emirati filmmaker Hassan Kiyany was known to use cutting-edge technology in his works. Courtesy Leo James

Kiyany left the corporate world in 2009 to pursue a career in film and photography. He quickly became known for his street photographs, all of which were captured using an iPhone. With a black and white aesthetic reminiscent of early film photographs, Kiyany’s images are a testament to his compositional sensibility.

The photographs, some of which can be seen on his Instagram account, are full of motion. They capture a couple mid-laugh, a man squatting by the Dubai Creek as a bird flies overhead, and a far-gazing pedestrian walking by with a cigarette dangling from his lips.

"I think people know him as a filmmaker and often forget that he was such a good photographer," says Somji, who had known Kiyany for almost a decade. "He was such a great visual storyteller. He was always interested in telling stories from around the UAE."

Kiyany established himself as a local filmmaker in 2011, when he won third prize at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival for a short he made on his iPhone.

However, his true breakout project would come in the form of 2014 documentary Marwan the Boxer. It tells the story of a 17-year-old Emirati boy as he prepares to represent his country in the World Boxing Championships in Bulgaria. The film, which is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, won first prize in the short documentary competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

A handout movie still of "Marwan the Boxer (UAE)" by Hassan Kiyany (Courtesy: ADFF)

Then came 2014 film Zaabil iDoc, which would cement Kiyany's name as the director behind the UAE's first interactive film. It shows efforts to photograph the abandoned Zabeel Secondary School for Girls in Dubai, which was one of the emirate's oldest schools, catering to about 300 pupils. Viewers can pick and choose the order in which they watch the scenes.

He has contributed to so much creative work here. He was very generous and gracious with his time

"We as viewers usually sit and watch the movies and shows," Kiyany told The National after the documentary's premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival. "But in the world of the internet there are many more possibilities. We don't necessarily need to stick to the director's choice of sequences. We can choose our own."

Kiyany worked on Zaabil iDoc with photographer Ammar Al Attar, a friend and frequent collaborator. They completed several projects, including commercial ventures such as the Jewel of Inspiration advertisement for Mercedes-Benz.

“He was always looking for new technologies with which to tell local stories,” Al Attar says.

Dubai - June 7, 2011 - Emariti filmmaker Hassan Kiyani used an iPhone to make an short film in Dubai, June 7, 2011. (Photo by Jeff Topping/The National)

Most recently, the pair worked on a VR film for Al Burda Festival in 2019. Their project involved filming Emirati performers in an old majlis in Abu Dhabi as they sang religious songs of praise during the Prophet Mohammed's birthday.

“We recorded it with VR technology and exhibited it as part of the festival,” Al Attar says.

Shaab, a documentary that follows a traditional Emirati wedding taking place in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah, was Kiyany's last work.

“The film was shot on a mobile,” says Al Attar. “It features only visuals and audio. There are no interviews.”

Kiyany's contribution to the local creative scene was not limited to his work, however. He actively tried to impart his know-how of film and photography, be it by helping others first-hand or by leading workshops around Dubai, including at the Apple Store in The Dubai Mall.

"He has contributed to so much creative work here, being a mentor, adviser and collaborator," Somji says. "He was very generous and gracious with his time."

Kiyany will be missed not only as a creative force, but as a person known for his well-mannered disposition, Somji says. "He was a gentleman."