The Road To Fulfilment: a film focused on the UAE ecosystem and sustainable living

Short documentary by Nayla Al Khaja won the Silver Dolphin at this year’s Cannes Corporate Media and TV Awards

Phil Dunn in a scene from the documentary The Road to Fulfilment. Photo: Phoenix Film DXB
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In The Road To Fulfilment, an Expo 2020 Dubai film, director Nayla Al Khaja highlights the vibrancy and potential of the UAE ecosystem, as well as the importance of conservation efforts that have significant ripples in our daily lives.

The short documentary won the Silver Dolphin at this year’s Cannes Corporate Media and TV Awards in September, regarded as one of the leading prizes in the corporate film industry. The work is divided into three parts, dedicated to the UAE’s air, earth and water, and features leading experts from each field.

Among these is Phil Dunn, senior manager of Terra – the Sustainability Pavilion at Expo City Dubai.

In the documentary, Dunn speaks about his efforts as part of his Sustainable Human Project, in which he spent a year living off food grown at his home in The Sustainable City, Dubai. He also developed a barter system, in which he would exchange woodwork he created from recycled materials, for food from his neighbours.

The Sustainable City is unlike other neighbourhoods in the city. It features 11 biodome greenhouses as well as a solar power system capable of delivering 10 megawatts of power. The neighbourhood was designed to prove that a wholly sustainable community in Dubai is not a far-fetched idea.

“There's a big misconception that the UAE is just a vast, barren desert,” Dunn tells The National. “That is so far from the truth. There is very, very good infrastructure that is starting to take place. There is a whole ministry that is focused on food security. It’s such a big mandate for the UAE. In the right season, anyone can grow food. Growing food outside is quite simple to do, given a bit of time and effort and responsibility to your plant babies.”

The Road to Fulfilment highlights Dunn’s efforts, showing how his Sustainable Human Project is a testament to the possibility of living sustainably in Dubai and the communal spirit it nurtures.

“The film was a vision of the sustainability department at Expo 2020,” Dunn says. “They wanted to tell the story of how the UAE is an agent of change, [and that] things are happening around sustainability, and tell it through human stories.

“It just so happened that my story around the Sustainable Human Project was chosen as one of the three stories,” he says.

The film was shot in September 2021, when Dunn was already halfway into the project. He had all his systems in place for growing his own food. “I had a good understanding of what it took to do those sorts of things,” he says. “On top of that, I was also working at Expo 2020, at the education and culture department, specifically in Terra. The Sustainability Pavilion is really leading on that message of how individual action can make a difference towards climate change.”

The Road to Fulfilment sustains that message, Dunn says, by showing how three individuals can trigger positive environmental consequences, and by extension inspire a larger community to take action.

“In my instance, growing your own food can lead to an awareness that brings you to bigger topics and bigger subjects that we all need to be talking about,” he says. “For instance, in the UAE, that conversation around food security is a big one.

“The biggest misconception that the film, I hope, tries to tackle is the idea that our individual actions don't make a difference,” Dunn says. “That the problems we're facing are too large that we can't act alone.”

Highlighting the UAE’s marine life in The Road to Fulfilment is Noora Albalooshi.

A scientist at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, Albalooshi details how dolphins are part of a complex social network, with a language that is more sophisticated than most people think.

“Dolphins are excessively talkative creatures,” she says in the documentary. “Dolphins not only whistle and click, they also emit loud broadband packets of sound called burst pulse sounds to discipline their young and chase away sharks.”

Albalooshi’s research on dolphin acoustics makes use of hydrophones, which she says, are some “of the first of their kind in the UAE”. She also looks back at her career in marine biology in the film, saying it was not an easy path when she started. “It was possible to count the number of women on one’s fingertips,” she says, before adding: “Today more and more women are involved.”

Speaking on marine conservation efforts, she says initiatives such as the Hammour House – an art installation and community project at Expo 2020 Dubai dedicated to endangered coral ecosystems – are integral in helping the public understand what scientists are working on. It also helps inspire a new generation of marine biologists, saying that her own passion and love for marine life began at a young age with “values instilled by my grandfather”.

Sheikh Salem bin Sultan Al Qasimi, meanwhile, who is the first of the three subjects to appear in the film, underscores the importance of bees in the local and global environment.

“In my lifetime the common bumblebee has gone from being prolific in every garden to being endangered,” Sheikh Salem, a conservationist and chairman of the One Hive initiative, says in the film. “That’s hard to conceive but it is true. When I’m around bees, I feel responsibility towards them. To sustain them and to sustain Mother Earth.”

“A lot of people don’t know the importance of bees, what they contribute to our food system, our industry and our Mother Earth,” he says, before adding: “Life will stop after four years if bees disappear.”

Efforts to bring the local bee population back to its former splendour include planting the right flora for bees, stopping the use of pesticides and adapting the hive to the environment to ensure it will thrive. “If you adapt the hive, you become the ambassador of bees,” Sheikh Salem says in the film.

The three stories in The Road to Fulfilment, coupled with Al Khaja’s sprawling and tender shots of the local flora and fauna, is a moving watch, which upends the dry expectations of what a corporate film could be. The film, as Dunn highlights, is a visual extension of the sustainability values Expo 2020 Dubai and Terra hope to impart. Even after Expo 2020 Dubai wrapped up last year, Terra – the Sustainability pavilion is continuing its initiatives.

“In the lead-up to Cop28, there are several initiatives that are happening in Expo city and Terra that specifically talk about food security, how to grow your own food and urban farming,” Dunn says.

“Terra is the hub of green education in the UAE. We’re really delivering a lot of green education programmes out of Terra, focused on UAE schools. We've had about 16,000 students since the beginning of the year come to Terra. We offer them workshops on all different things from waste to water to energy and habitat and biodiversity.”

Updated: November 06, 2023, 9:54 AM