Why Emirati director Amal Al Agroobi is zooming in on horror films: 'Everything I do has an Arab spin'

Her latest short is London based but has a Middle Eastern twist

Amal Al Agroobi. Photo by Ahmed Abouzeid
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Film director Amal Al Agroobi has never been afraid to speak her mind. She first came to the public's attention when her debut, short documentary Half Emirati, became the most watched film at 2012's Dubai International Film Festival.

The film dealt with the challenges faced by children of mixed heritage, who are half Emirati.

Her next documentary, 2013's The Brain That Sings was among the first films to offer a glimpse into the lives of young people in the UAE living with autism. She won the Diff People's Choice Award for her work.

More recently, Al Agroobi has turned to fiction filmmaking, but is still tackling unique and sometimes tricky subjects. Her 2016 fiction debut, Under the Hat, told the story of an aspiring young Arab heavy-metal star who fills in for the local muezzin after a throat infection puts the leader of the mosque's job to sing the call to prayer and home at risk. In her 2019 film Vanish in Smoke, she tackled the horrors of hi-tech pedophilia.

Al Agroobi has spent a lot of time in Europe in recent years. And about this decision, she says in her typically forthright fashion: “It’s fine to be in the UAE and have that big-fish-in-a-small-pond thing, but the pond is much bigger than that. We [Emirati filmmakers] are in the film world and we want to be doing international work on an international scale.”

Al Agroobi is now about to shoot her latest film, Ladies Coffee, in London. For the short the director is working with European producers, some of which she met at Berlin's film festival.

Despite working in the UK and Europe, she insists she has not forgotten her roots. Al Agroobi says she is now better placed to tell the Arab stories the world needs to hear. "Everything I do has an Arab spin on it," she says.

"I wrote a sci-fi that is entirely based on Islamic folklore. Reading the script, you would think it's Star Wars. It's really important for me to create work with an Arab narrative, because our voice is being lost."

Amal Al Agroobi on the set of Under Hat. Courtesy Amal Al Agroobi
Amal Al Agroobi, right, on the set of 'Under Hat'. Courtesy Amal Al Agroobi

About her latest film, Al Agroobi says that even something as seemingly innocuous as a horror film can fit into her mission to bring Arab stories to a global audience through delving into the distinctly Arabic world of coffee-cup reading – a traditional regional form of fortune telling. “Throughout the story, the coffee cup gives access to the world of the unseen,” she says.

Plus, the director plans to subvert the western standards of the genre. “We’ve seen everything. We’ve seen witches. We’ve seen ‘the power of Christ compels you’. We’ve seen Catholicism and horror. We have not seen Islam and horror,” she says.

It's really important for me to create work with an Arab narrative, because our voice is being lost

While production in Abu Dhabi has restarted, Ladies Coffee will be among the first post-Covid films to enter production in the UK, which was badly hit by the virus.

This means a series of new safety measures and restrictions that could push up both the cost and length of filming.

“There are protocols in place from the UK government, from Screen Skills, from the British Film Institute. We need to sanitise everything, including equipment, before we leave the set. There are even these little disinfectant grenades. You launch them like bombs and they disinfect the entire set before you come on.”

Crew members are also doubling up on tasks to keep numbers down on set, with a script supervisor also acting as second-assistant director, and a first-assistant director filling a dual role as production manager.

Amal Al Agroobi. Courtesy Amal Al Agroobi
Amal Al Agroobi. Courtesy Amal Al Agroobi

It’s not an ideal situation, and Al Agroobi says she expects the measures to add about 50 per cent to her costs, despite the reduced crew, but she is realistic about the challenges of the Covid world.

“It’s going to take longer on a film set, but you do what you need to do,” she says. “The sooner we can get back to shooting, the sooner we can get back to making stuff, and that is great for us as filmmakers, and great for audiences too.”

In a life-imitating-art twist, to help with the extra costs, Al Agroobi is running a Kickstarter campaign through which she herself will give contributors a coffee reading over Zoom.

- Initially we incorrectly named Amal Al Agroobi’s short film ‘Vanish in Smoke’ and incorrectly reported the protagonists in ‘Ladies Coffee’ were Swedish. We apologise for the errors.