The Sand Fish and its screen adaptation are firmly rooted in the Arab world

The prize of US$100,000 (Dh367,000) will be handed out on December 11 at the IWC Filmmaker Awards, held on the second day of the Dubai International Film Festival and is given to a director from one of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries to transfer their vision from script to screen.
The award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir worked on the screenplay of Sandfish. Courtesy Philistine Films
The award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir worked on the screenplay of Sandfish. Courtesy Philistine Films

An adaptation of the Emirati writer Maha Gargash’s best­selling book The Sand Fish is one of three scripts in contention for the prestigious IWC Filmmaker Award. The annual prize of US$100,000 (Dh367,000), which will be handed out during a gala at the Dubai Film International Film Festival tonight, was created to help directors from Gulf Cooperation Council countries transfer their visions from script to screen.

The film is the first project from Paul Baboudjian’s new Dubai-based production house, Tharwa Productions. The Lebanese producer, who served as an executive director of Screen Institute Beirut, was a producer on Ali F Mostafa’s From A to B, which opened the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and is also playing at Diff (it opens in UAE cinemas on January 1).

The Saudi Arabian filmmaker and actress Ahd Kamel, best known for her starring role in the international hit Wadjda, will direct the film, which is now called Sandfish.

Sandfish reminded me a lot of my grandmother and her stories and how she grew up around the time when Saudi Arabia was just being formed, and how women had this kind of rite of passage whether they wanted it or not,” says Kamel. “I’m drawn to projects that are able to rise above and show you the human level. The film that you walk out of, and whether you liked it or not, it moved something inside you.”

The job of overseeing the adaptation of book to screen was given to the Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, best known for directing When I Saw You, which won Best Arab Film at the ADFF in 2012, and the 2008 Cannes International Film Festival entry Salt of this Sea.

“It’s a huge honour, after working for so long in that isolated process called screenwriting, to learn that my script has been shortlisted for the IWC award,” she says. “It’s the first recognition for the screenplay and provides a major boost for the project, so it means a lot of course.”

It has been a long process of adaptation, which began three years ago when Alessandra Priante, formerly Italy’s cultural attaché to the UAE and now creative producer on the film, approached Jacir after reading and becoming “besotted” with the world Gargash created.

“The story, the characters, the delicacy yet the harshness of the old UAE – all is rotating around the adventures of this amazing little girl Noora, whom we follow from rebellious youth to maternity,” says Priante. “We believed in its cinematic potential and we felt the urge to bring it to film audiences.”

As the novel is set in the Emirates of the 1950s and 1960s, Jacir did extensive research on the time period when she was in the Gulf last spring.

“Much of that was collecting and thinking about visual images – which I mostly collected from the National Museum of Qatar. I wandered the Museum of Islamic Art for inspiration. I also rely a lot on oral history, especially interviews with elderly women and men who know this period of the Gulf and watched it change in front of their eyes. Aside from the large collection of photographs, some of them in private collections, which exist from the period, there were also a few films, not many, but there do exist moving images and it was fantastic to discover them. These things helped me to ‘see’ the film.”

Jacir’s approach was not all research, however, as she did spend the first 16 years of her life in Saudi Arabia.

“To be honest, it’s probably that which helped me illustrate my storyboards for Sandfish the most; I can see that whole world in front of me. I’ve spent a lot of time in the desert.”

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: December 10, 2014 04:00 AM

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