Waleed Al Shehhi’s Dolphins paving the way for Emirati filmmakers

Interview with 2013 IWC award winner and Dolphins director, Waleed Al Shehhi.

A still from Dolphins. Courtesy DIFF
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Waleed Al Shehhi wasted no time after his script for Dolphins picked up US$100,000 (Dh367,000) in funding from the IWC Filmmaker Award at Dubai International Film Festival last year.

The day after a new crop of hopefuls are up for the 2014 edition of the award, the Ras Al Khaimah-based college educator returns to Diff for a gala red-carpet screening of his first feature film.

“We really appreciate the fact it’s been chosen for a gala screening,” he says. “I feel it’s in some ways payback for making a regional feature film on a very tight budget. The entire project cost around Dh1.2 million – that’s not much, even compared to other Emirati features. Even with the awards, I paid a lot out of my own pocket and used a lot of my own equipment. Of course I’m still very grateful to IWC, to Diff, to Watani who contributed a lot, and to twofour54 who took care of some of the post costs. I sent about 250 emails out trying to get funding for this film and many didn’t even reply, so I’m eternally grateful to those who helped.”

The challenges of bringing the film to screen didn’t stop with funding, which included a grant from Diff’s Enjaaz fund for post-production, says Al Shehhi.

“It was so difficult, as by the time we knew we had the award, most of the cast were already committed to Ramadan productions – it was mostly a professional cast and this made it quite tricky, so there were a few delays until we finally started shooting for about 25 days at the start of April in Ras Al Khaimah.”

The film, told from the separate perspectives of a father, mother and son living in Al Shehhi’s home emirate, is very much an Emirati one. However Al Shehhi enlisted help from beyond our borders to ensure that his 25-member crew would get the very best result.

“I brought crew in from Thailand – the DoP [director of photography], sound and lighting directors and camera assistants. But I also had UAE students in every department working alongside the professional crew. We enlisted mostly media students from the Higher Colleges of Technology in RAK, where I teach. They learnt a lot, they were under great pressure and by the end of the shoot they’d gained great experience.”

Al Shehhi says that the opportunity to give experience to young Emiratis was one of his favourite parts of making the movie: “I loved it, because with this project, and my job heading the applied communication programme at RAK College, we really are teaching a new generation of filmmakers. As part of their studies, they had to submit some of their work on the film to be evaluated, so it’s not just wasted time. Even the assistant director was a student.”

With the winner of this year’s IWC award set to be announced tonight, one day before his red carpet gala, Al Shehhi advises this year’s three hopefuls to persevere regardless of the outcome.

“IWC is a great initiative, but remember – you can’t guarantee it. I didn’t know whether I’d get it or not, so you have to be prepared to make your film without it. Good luck to all this year’s finalists though – I’m sure it will help a lot to whoever gets it this year.”