Emirati filmmaker debuts UAE’s first interactive film at Diff

The Dubai-based director Hassan Kiyany explains why he's taken a unique approach to narrate his story.

Hassan Kiyany filing his documentary about an abandoned school. Courtesy Ammar Al Attar
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Watching TV and films is a much more social experience in the age of social media. Many people now view a show on one screen, while simultaneously tapping on another about their reactions to what’s happening.

But what about a film that allows the viewer to pick their own beginning, middle or end?

That’s what the Emirati director Hassan Kiyany has just made.

His first interactive film, also billed as the country’s first interactive film, received its premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival and on Wednesday it went live for the world to see.

Zaabil iDoc, a documentary showing efforts to photograph the now abandoned Zabeel Secondary School for Girls in Deira, Dubai, allows viewers to pick and choose the order in which they watch the scenes, and to click through to extra content.

“We as viewers usually sit and watch the movies and shows,” says Kiyany, from Dubai. “But in the world of the internet there are many more possibilities. We don’t necessarily need to stick to the director’s choice of sequences. We can choose our own.”

Kiyany, 32, has been making films for a decade. His most recent offering, a documentary titled Marwan the Boxer about a female Emirati pugilist, won first prize in the short documentary competition at this year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

“With this project, it was a story that I wanted to tell.”

Zabeel Secondary School was built more than 35 years ago but has been vacant since 2011. The school taught a lot of orphans and children from very low income families. It was one of the emirate’s oldest schools and catered for about 300 pupils.

“We don’t know what the future holds for it,” Kiyany says.

The buildings and courtyards of the school are eerily empty. The film shows dirty whiteboards with faint writings and drawings.

There are trees and shrubs growing in the courtyards and graffiti dotted around the walls including a typical teenage scrawl of “Jamila my love, I love you so much and for ever”.

“A friend of mine, Ammar Al Attar, likes to go to these old sorts of places, abandoned places, to capture through analogue photo­graphy the details that remain before the buildings go away forever.”

Al Attar, who was born in Dubai and now lives in Ajman, uses a Linhof Super Technika III camera, dating back to the Second World War, to capture the abandoned school. Viewers can click on info buttons in certain scenes to view Al Attar’s biography, and also learn more about the camera. He speaks in Arabic but there are English subtitles.

There are also pop-ups to Wikipedia pages for Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

“You don’t need any apps or plug-ins – it’s very simple for people to watch and interact with,” says Kiyany. The film went live on the internet on Wednesday, which he says is just the beginning. “In the film we will ask viewers if they or their families studied at the school and if they can share these ideas and memories.” Tweets marked #Zaabil­iDoc can be sent or viewed at any time during the film.

Interactive movies have existed for more than 20 years. One of the first was the 1992 short film I'm Your Man. This was the first offering from director Bob Bejan's interactive cinema company Interfilm and centred on a plot to expose someone to the FBI for extortion.

Cinemagoers were asked to use controlpads to choose one of three directions the story should take, every couple of minutes.

According to an article in The New York Times written shortly after the film's release, the filmmakers had to generate about 90 minutes worth of film, with about 68 different scene variations. The audience saw about 20 minutes of footage.

The writer describes a key moment where the audience was asked to decide whether a central character should try to escape from the roof on which he is trapped by running through an open door, jumping to the roof of the next building or revealing his identity as an FBI agent.

“This being New York, the audience screams out in unison ‘Jump! Jump!’ while pressing the buttons. The votes are electronically tallied, and Jack, after deliberating for a few moments, responds to the will of the people. The audience whoops with delight.”

Kiyany is not expecting his audience to be as excited as the viewers of I'm Your Man, but he does hope his documentary sparks more interest in interactive films. "It is the first for the UAE, and first for us. There are so many possibilities with interactive and this is a different approach to interactive stories."

• Watch Zaabil iDoc at www.zaabilidoc.com