Of the thousands of films jostling for attention in the Cannes Film Festival’s “Short Film Corner” next month, at least two of them were filmed in – and partly inspired by – the most desolate landscapes of the UAE. And Georgian Beso Turazashvili was involved in the making of them both.
The 23-year-old brand consultant helped to make the films two years ago, when he was a student on the inaugural filmmaking course at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Turazashvili directed the 15-minute-long Lost in Escapade, a psychological drama about a Georgian couple, Sandro (Paata Inauri) and Tina (Tinatin Dalakishvili), who stumble upon the "Ghost town" of Al Jazirat Al Hamra – an abandoned town in Ras Al Khaimah.
“Tina leaves her partner Sandro in Georgia and comes to the UAE to work, as many of us do”, Turazashvili says. “But she did not explain to him why she left, so he comes to the UAE to find out. They drive to a hotel to talk it out. The car breaks down on the way and they find themselves in this abandoned town. Empty houses become a symbol of their relationship. Even though it’s a real place, it has a surreal quality to it. I used magical realism because I felt the place itself is quite magical.”
More than four decades have passed since the hundreds of families who lived in the coral stone houses of Al Jazirat Al Hamra moved out, for reasons that remain disputed.
The village's haunting architecture has made it a popular backdrop for locally made films. The feature-length horror film Djinn, directed by Poltergeist's Tobe Hooper, has enhanced the village's spooky reputation.
Turazashvili found the site to be shrouded in mystery, so much so that even getting there was an enigma.
“We had to drive down to Ras Al Khaimah three times to be able to find it. There’s so much life around there now that it’s quite hard to imagine that the abandoned village would be there. However, once you’re there, it’s a different world. No sound from outside comes in – only silence and reflection.”
The filmmakers found clothes and furniture used many years ago inside the neglected buildings. “It makes you imagine how families were cooking meals, kids were running around and playing – and now there’s just this complete emptiness.”
Turazashvili had an eerie experience on set himself: “Once, after the end of a long day of shooting, I found myself alone on set when everyone was wrapping up and heard a child crying. I’m not sure whether it was a ghost, a child nearby really crying or some childhood memories coming up in my head.”
Lost in Escapade has already won best cinematography and best original music this year at the Euro Film Festival in Spain, for its soundtrack, by acclaimed Georgian musician Sophie Villy. "It was very important to me to have original music in the film, and I got to know Sophie, who suggested doing tracks from her latest album."
Turazashvili is working on the screenplay for his first feature film, One Winter with Lola, which he hopes to shoot next year in Dubai and Georgia.
“The film is about immigrants and the difficulties they encounter. It’s difficult when your family is living according to their traditions back home, but you’re in a different country, trying to find a balance.”
Expat identity is a theme Turazashvili is familiar with, having been raised in Russia rather than his native Georgia, and now living in Dubai.
“This is what I experienced as a child. All my films are about immigrants in search of their real identities.”
Taking inspiration from the desert
Beso Turazashvili – also a budding fashion designer – was the production and costume designer for the film Filigrane (2014), which was directed by his mentor and NYUAD professor, Gail Segal, 62. The 20-minute-long film, which is also premiering at Cannes, is about siblings travelling through the Empty Quarter who discover dark family secrets.
When Segal travelled to the UAE for the first time in 2012, she knew she wanted to set a story in its landscape. Then a few months later, her mother died. “I became acutely aware of how everyone in my family remembered her so differently. The story for my film began to take shape: a story of three French siblings clashing over real estate after the death of their father. Only in their case, the real estate is memory. Each wants the last word on how he is remembered.”
The following year, she returned to the UAE to teach at NYUAD and started making her film: “The beauty of the UAE desert is not just it’s contours and colours, or its vastness, but also the way it plants you so firmly in the present. As the siblings travel deeper into the desert, the hold of memory loosens – until they meet the beautiful Noor, the father’s research assistant, who overthrows, with her own memories, any last remnant of their claims.”
Chief among Segal’s production challenges was the issue of finding an Emirati woman over the age of 40 to play the role of Noor. “I looked and looked. A colleague finally suggested a friend of his, Sallama Bu-Haydar who is actually from Lebanon but is married to an Emirati. She and I met, and I knew instantly she was Noor. I can’t imagine the film without her particular presence.”