It's every father's worst nightmare. Your precious daughter returns home after studying overseas. You have laid down the kind of family feast that only you, a celebrated local butcher, could provide. But she has not come alone. Tagging along is a Korean friend she met at college, bringing a new set of cultural values you cannot relate to and a dark secret that could tear the family apart through the course of the sumptuous meal.
It already sounds like the plot of any number of Hollywood films, from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to Get Out but the plot of The Dinner sits somewhere between the genres of horror and comedy, and comes not from Hollywood, but from Emirati screenwriter Afnan Alqasimi.
Alqasimi is one of three up-and-coming local, female talents behind the film, alongside Saudi director Noura bint Hussam and Emirati star Mona Al Blooshi.
The trio, and the film itself, are the latest presentation of the Female Short Film Programme which, since 2016, has sought to give opportunities to creatives from the region under the watchful eyes of its founder, Nancy Paton. The award-winning Australian-Polish director and writer, is also the producer for The Dinner.
For Paton, bringing local women into the film industry is about more than gaining plaudits for her commitment to inclusivity. "Fiction is such an important part of what we watch, and we are in desperate need of a more diverse spectrum of films," she tells The National.
“We need an industry that properly represents the world and tells stories about families from all over the world because all we see is American families. This is why we started the Female Short Film Programme. We need more content from the GCC, and we need to inspire youngsters in the region into the creative arts.”
Al Blooshi did not need too much inspiration to get in front of the camera. She was an established presenter on the Abu Dhabi Sports channel before she crossed paths with Paton through a mutual friend. She has studied film in the US and became a social media sensation (with both supporters and critics) when she became the first Emirati to be accredited as a coach by the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness. Though Al Blooshi is not shy of the spotlight, she admits that it's tough for women to break into the film and TV industries anywhere in the world, and that the UAE can present its own unique challenges.
"My own family were really supportive, but a lot of families would be against it, like: 'Why is she on TV?' There is a part of the culture that a girl should not be there," she says.
The actress says things are changing, citing the government as a particularly positive catalyst for the evolving role of women in Emirati society. "Maybe some of the society might not like some things about [The Dinner], and maybe some people are going to be against it. They will say 'what is she trying to do? What message is she trying to deliver?' It's a slow process socially, but there is a really nice message behind it."
When the coronavirus hit, restrictions on gatherings meant that a UAE public screening for the film seemed impossible until at least next year.
The Sea of Culture Foundation, founded by Sheikha Rowda bint Mohammed bin Khalid, a long-standing supporter of local artistic talent, initially intended to host a physical premiere of The Dinner for its members.
However, following the pandemic outbreak, the foundation's regular public meetings were pushed to Zoom, while The Dinner found itself bereft of a screening, until the new trend of online releases.
The film will have its exclusive online premiere tomorrow at 8pm, followed by a Zoom Q&A with key members of the cast and crew. Members of the public are welcome to watch and join in the post-screening session.
The film will be removed after the screening, to ensure it does not fall foul of festival submission rules for later in the year.
For Paton, the appeal of a ready-made online audience courtesy of the partnership with Sea of Culture is clear, but the producer does not want it to stop there. “There could be other artists in the UAE – members of the foundation, readers of articles like this – sitting at home, wanting to go and make films or wanting to be creative, so we want to fire them up,” she says.
"We hope they will all come to the screening, and will take applications for the Female Short Film Programme afterwards. So by doing this with Sea of Culture, maybe we can find the next writer, the next director. What I want to bring back from this event is not just a screening, but the beginnings of the next The Dinner."
The Dinner will premiere online at 8pm on Monday, September 14; you can find it at this link.