UAE autism documentary, As One, to premiere at ADFF 2014 on Saturday

Image Nation's new autism doc As One set to preview at ADFF

A scene from As One showing Al Kindi Saif Fadhel Al Hameli’s father. Courtesy ADFF
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If the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s red carpet at Emirates Palace seems to have taken on the appearance of a kids’ play area on Saturday morning, don’t worry. You haven’t come to the wrong place.

You'll be watching the stars of the documentary As One – produced by Image Nation, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi Media, which is the publisher and owner of The ­National – enjoying their moment in the spotlight before the film premieres at 11am.

The film follows the journey of 10 autistic children from across the country as they take part in a three-month musical-theatre programme, culminating in a grand performance in front of a live audience of parents, friends and theatregoers at Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Girls in the capital.

The stars come from a variety of cultural and national backgrounds, not to mention a wide range of points on the autistic spectrum, with vastly different verbal and emotional abilities.

But the dedicated team of six teachers embrace the challenge of shaping the group into the stars of the show, relying largely on just one session a week with their cast during the ­programme’s three-month ­duration.

The teachers are something of a who’s who of the UAE entertainment scene, and the kids learn skills, such as clowning, comedy, music and dance from well-known names such as the comedians Ali Al Sayed and Mina Liccione, the theatre director Dana Dajani, the choreographer Philip Rachid and musical director Rob Millner.

Autism therapy is still very much in its infancy here and none of the teachers, with the exception of applied behavioural analysis consultant Sharifa Yateem, had any previous experience of working with autism.

The documentary was also originally helmed by Tricia Regan, the Emmy Award-winning director of Autism: The Musical, but as the project grew to become an increasingly collaborative affair, the producers say that she returned to the United States and a local team took over the production.

While the crew’s efforts are noteworthy, it is of course the kids who are the real stars – and they take us on a touching journey as the young thespians bond and develop as a group, surprising their teachers, the audience and even their own parents by the time of the grand finale.

With so many films to choose from during ADFF, it’s understandable that audiences might not be immediately drawn by the words “autism” and “documentary” – and the co-director and producer Hana Makki admits that some viewers at preview screenings may have had preconceptions about what might seem like “heavy” subject matter. But, she says, such concerns quickly disappear when the film starts.

“Some people who’ve seen it have said, ‘To be honest I didn’t have my hopes up too high because of the topic’ – but so far everyone who’s watched has loved it and been really pleased they’ve seen it.”

There is plenty of humour, moments of sadness and a rip-­roaring final performance from the new stars, who feel like our friends – as do their families – by the end of the 80 minutes.

Perhaps most crucially, though, the film also serves a vital social purpose in a society where autism has such a low profile.

One of the most moving moments in the film, and a great motivation to check it out this weekend, comes when the parents of Al Kindi Saif Fadhel Al Hameli, a 9-year-old Emirati, explain how even their own friends and family can sometimes be scared of their son, or worry that he may attack their children.

“Me and my family and society as a whole need to learn about autism,” says the boy’s father, Saif. “We need to learn that autism is nothing to be shy or ashamed about. Because I love Al Kindi, I want society to learn – himself, he can’t.”

As One screens at 11am, Saturday, October 25, at Emirates Palace hotel. Tickets cost Dh30 and are available from the Emirates Palace ADFF Box Office, or online at www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae

cnewbould@thenational.ae