Director Waleed Al Shehhi on the 10-year dedication to his film Dolphins

The Ras Al Khaimah filmmaker Waleed Al Shehhi talks about the 10-year process involved in bringing his first feature film Dolphins to the big screen.

A scene from Dolphins. Director Waleed Al Shehhi won the $100,000 IWC Award at Diff in 2013 for promising filmmakers. Courtesy Diff
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Waleed Al Shehhi's Dolphins, which premiered at last year's Dubai International Film Festival and was scheduled for a wide release in the UAE in March, is finally ready to hit cinemas later this month.

But if that delay seems long, spare a thought for Al Shehhi and scriptwriter Ahmad Salmeen, who had carried the project with them for around 10 years when its win at Diff’s IWC Awards in 2013 meant funding was finally available to bring it to the big screen.

Al Shehhi explains: “It was originally an idea for a short film that myself and Ahmed had carried with us. We reached a point where we decided to redo the entire project as a feature. The short was just too complicated and we had so many ideas, we just felt it would be better as a feature. We went round the different locations in Ras Al Khaimah – the towns, the mountains, the beach – and we just started to get inspiration and knew what would happen. The inspiration really did come from the region, from the things we saw in the place itself.”

The pair spent almost two years rewriting before they were finally able to begin submitting the script for funding, culminating in winning the US$100,000 (Dh367,000) award from IWC.

Despite the grant, production was still a challenge, says Al Shehhi: “The award was great, but it was still a small budget. Almost all the equipment we used was already mine and we tried to do it in the same budget-conscious manner as we had short films in the past. We did get some outside professionals – the DoP, sound and lighting from Thailand – and they were all independent film makers, too, and were used to doing what we were doing here. Lots of my students [Al Shehhi teaches at RAK’s Higher College of Technology’s media programme] helped and participated too, and I think they got an experience that I would have loved to have at their age.

“I can’t thank the college enough for all the help they gave me. It was a big challenge to finish off my first film and now I am looking at things in a different way, and will do things in a different way next time because I know the steps and the process now.”

Al Shehhi says he does have ideas for his next feature, but he won’t be making a start on it just yet. “For a year and a half I had literally no life. I was on the film 24/7 right up until it screened at DIFF. I was producer, director, editor and everything else because of the budget. I was making all the phone calls, gathering all the crew. It’s difficult.”

The film was a true UAE-wide project. Diff’s IWC and Enjaaz funds both helped out, as did twofour54 Abu Dhabi’s Creative Lab, which funded the film’s music composition, while virtually every government department in Ras Al Khaimah receives a thank you in the film’s closing credits. However, Al Shehhi clearly doesn’t feel that this is a sign that all is well in the nascent UAE filmmaking industry.

“We are going entirely in the wrong direction,” he says. “It’s not just the Abu Dhabi Film Festival closing, although everybody’s talking about that at the moment. Before that we lost GFF (the Gulf Film Festival), and there is definitely a smaller number of filmmakers coming through now. A lot of people have just quit and there are much fewer short films being produced. We’re really worried about what’s happening, because nobody’s giving an explanation. The funds are there, which they weren’t 10 years ago. Diff is still there, colleges are doing more video production, but everything seems to be going in the wrong direction and we have no idea why. We try to discuss it with all the filmmakers and we just can’t work out why it is happening.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and as a film teacher in a college himself, he has some suggestions for how the situation could be improved.

“We need more practical workshops where people can go into a screenwriting workshop, write a script then have another workshop to implement and execute the project. I think as well colleges should be offering dedicated film courses, not just four-year media courses that include a film element. Introduce film studies, not only generalised media programmes. This could all help things ­improve.”

Dolphins, which is in Arabic with English subtitles, is scheduled to open in UAE cinemas on June 18