Nujoom Alghanem is an Emirati director, and she wants you to tell her what you didn’t like about her documentary. Really. This might surprise you. The United Arab Emirates is not known as a breeding ground for robust criticism or for its outspoken women. But the director of Amal wants that to stop.“Criticism is not appreciated here even if it is constructive,” Alghanem tells me. “Here it is destructive or constructive, with nothing in the middle, just to please the people around. It’s not part of our custom. A group of expats started doing this. They thought it was pleasing, but, with the process of time, it stopped being this. There weren’t many Emiratis working in journalism, so this is how it was set. I’m sure it wasn’t out of bad intention, but it has lost its meaning. People have to start saying things objectively.”
I didn’t like the ending of Amal. A journalist friend thought it needed editing in the beginning, but loved Alghanem’s last film, Hamama. A French filmmaker who saw Hamama thought it needed editing to “find its narrative core.” Sadly, those are the only criticisms of Alghanem’s work to report. Filmmakers face many problems in the Gulf, but perhaps the most difficult thing to overcome is that they work in a vacuum when it comes to feedback.
“People get used to [self-censorship], like a disease, to the extent they can’t handle it,” Alghanem adds. “Maybe it’s true that some locals want to keep it this way. Gulf people are very polite. But we are also responsible to let people know the truth. It’s bad to blind them by being polite. It damages them more.”
Amal and Hamama do not seem like revolutionary films. Hamama, which won a Special Jury Prize at DIFF last year, features a Sharjah faith healer who’s over twice the age of the UAE, which celebrated its 40th birthday just two weeks ago. Amal captures the life of a fifty-something expat who came to the UAE for a job in television eight years ago, but yearns to return to her native Syria.
The coup here is in just telling these stories, which do not fit the government-approved glamour-of-the-desert propaganda. Alghanem’s minimalist style fits her subjects, who she slowly reveals to be not what they seem on the outside. Hamama appears to be a cartoon with her burqa and squeaky voice, but we learn her life has been filled with pain. She carries the shame of being adopted and the failure to save her son from alcoholism.
Amal is literally a cartoon. At her first job in the UAE she provided the motion capture and voice for Modhesh, the mascot for the Dubai Shopping Festival. Her next job was editing the Web site for Majed, a popular Arab cartoon. Amal, however, aspires to return to her theatre roots and reveals the dark side of the acting profession with her tale of a director who told her she was too ugly for television.
Both documentaries tell stories of people lost in the hustle and bustle of the bling-a-zation of the country. Amal visits the opulent Emirates Palace hotel for a concert, but Alghanem focuses on her character, alone, singing along with a Syrian chanteuse and holding up her cellphone so that a distant friend can hear. Hamama receives a certificate of appreciation at a town ceremony, but she takes the opportunity to complain about her condition.
Alghanem does not hold any grudges. Her films are not pessimistic. When Amal returns to Syria near the end, she says: “You were a good friend. At times I felt you kidnapped me. Bye Abu Dhabi. I loved you.” These are the stories that appeal to the director, and it seems they appeal to others as well. More than two dozen people were turned away at the premiere of Amal, and the film was recognized as the best Emirati film.
“I am touched by this, proud,” Alghanem says. “I know here they can see something maybe different and they trust my name.”
Doc-tored quotes from DIFF 2011:
• “You’re a dirty slipper on my foot,” Amira, one of three Cairo bellydancing sisters featured in At Night They Dance, to a customer who didn’t hire her.
• “Will I be able to die a good death?” Tomoaki Sunada, diagnosed with terminal cancer, in Ending Note (Death of a Japanese Salesman), which won second prize in the AsiaAfrica Documentary competition.
• “She’s a lesbian, and it’s time for you to admit it and move on,” friend to San Liangzi, who has been in love for 10 years with the only available woman in the northern Chinese village known as Bachelor Mountain
• “Imagine there is an idea and everybody joins in,” opening title for Cinema Jenin, a film about the rebuilding of a movie theatre in Palestine.
• “The music is a vaccine. I swear if I do not sing I get sick,” a singer of the Northern African music featured in Andalucia.
• “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals character,” Bill Courtney, the coach of the Memphis high-school football team featured in Undefeated
• “ICI ON NOIE LES ALGERIENS” — graffiti on a Paris bridge after a police crackdown on Algerians protesting a curfew. Here We Drown Algerians — October 17th, 1961, which won second prize in the Arab Documentary competition, intersperses interviews with demonstrators with archival footage.
• “We got our Masters in friendship. Now we’re working on our PhD in relationships,” poet Sarthak Roychowdury on his wife, Ritu, in Kokkho-Poth (The Sound of Old Rooms).
Bits from the Emirates … Jafar Panahi would like you to criticize his film, too…if he could ever make it. The Iranian government banned the filmmaker from directing or producing films for 20 years and sentenced him to six years in prison for making propaganda in support of the Green Revolution. The ban did not say anything, however, about him being the subject of a film. So Panahi invited his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb over to his house to film him. The result, This Is Not A Film, takes place on Fireworks Wednesday, the weekday preceding Persian New Year, which gives the documentary eerie gunshot background noise. In between hanging out with his pet iguana, Igi, and taking calls from his lawyer, Panahi tries to “direct” a banned script of his. He uses yellow tape to mark off a “set” and explains what the protagonist, a girl who has been banned from attending art school in Tehran and confined to her house, feels. This frustrates him so at the end he picks up a camera, and, well, I don’t want to get the director in any more trouble. Panahi took home first prize in the Asia/Africa Documentary competition at DIFF. Perhaps he can put the trophy next to the Camera d’Or he won for his 1995 film The White Balloon, which was co-written by Abbas Kiarostami ... The winner of the Arab Documentary Competition was Sector Zero, a film that examines Karantina, the northeastern area of Beirut that has gone from a welcoming point in for tourists to a Fatah stronghold in the civil war and today is both the most polluted part of Lebanon and a thriving cultural neighbourhood … Documentarian Shalahuddin Siregar can add DIFF’s AsiaAfrica competition to his trophy case. His film The Land Beneath the Fog chronicles a village on the Merbabu mountain that is coping with the effects of climate change. The 32-year-old Indonesian director won the Indonesian Eagle Prize for documentaries and was part of the Berlinale Talent Campus in 2009.
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