Ali Al Jabri Image Credit: Supplied

The absence of an established film industry has not deterred aspiring Emirati filmmakers from experimenting with the medium, according to one insider tasked with promoting the craft in the Emirates.

Emirati director and actor Ali Al Jabri, who heads the Emirates Film Competition, an annual component of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF), says quality is improving despite a "lack of film culture in the region".

"This year the films we have received are much better than the ones from last year. There has been significant improvement in terms of quality — especially now with technology becoming more and more portable and affordable," he says. "Also filmmakers are becoming more experimental, especially the student filmmakers."

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Emirates Film Competition (EFC) was set up to promote and support film production in the Gulf. Al Jabri, as director, is responsible for selecting, screening and reviewing more than 50 films vying for the top prize this year. Open to all filmmakers in the GCC, the competition will give awards for the Best Narrative, Best Documentary, Best Student Narrative and Best Student Documentary categories — Dh30,000 for the winner in the professional category and Dh20,000 for the student category.

Bigger things

Past participants in the EFC have gone on to bigger things, says Al Jabri.

"Nawaf Al Janahi is one example, he has been participating in many of the previous editions of the EFC with notable works like Mirrors Of Silence and The Circle. Now, he has finished his second feature film, Sea Shadow, which is going to premiere this year at the ADFF. Another example is Khalid Al Mahmoud who also has been actively participating since the EFC first began," Al Jabri says.

"We're still getting there, but undoubtedly the EFC has played a big role in this and will continue to."

What the industry needs now, he says, are educational institutes dedicated to filmmaking.

"The UAE is a relatively young country itself — let alone its youth. To nurture and nourish this, we lack proper institutes with advanced facilities ," he says.

"I also believe we aren't very exposed to a lot of films outside of Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters. I am a huge fan of foreign films like German, Irish, French, and South American cinema. I also enjoy independent films. And I believe it is crucial for a filmmaker to have an eye for any kind of film," he adds.

Amatuer filmmakers in the Emirates tend to get discouraged because there is no promise of a steady income, adds Al Jabri. "Art isn't about money or income. It's about expressing oneself, about representation of a people with opinions, emotions and vision. And with no established industry, a love for the craft will have to do for now," he says.

"It's more about doing it out of love or passion and we're just not at that point yet. Perhaps one day sooner than later…"

Meet the 'don't miss' Emirati filmmakers

With almost 50 filmmakers from across the Gulf region vying for the top prize at this year's Emirates Film Competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, tabloid! speaks with some Emirati directors about their entries, the inspirations and what they hope to get. 

Mansour Al Daheri (36), government employee

Film: A Falcon Will Not Breed a Dove (42 minutes)

Category: Short Documentary

"This is my first participation at the EFC. The title of my film comes from a well-known Arabic saying. It is a look at the life of Shaikh Zayed [Bin Sultan Al Nahyan] through the eyes of one of his most trusted aides and companions Suhail Al Yabhouni, the man who dedicated his life to the service of our great leader. The documentary features a lot of exclusive footage from Shaikh Zayed's life which has never been seen before. It took me a year to make this film.

"I have always been passionate about films and have made four documentaries. I've also produced more than 20 films made by friends. I made this film because I thought it was my duty as an Emirati to showcase the life of a great man and his trusted friend."

Abdullah Al Neyadi (22), architectural engineering student at UAE University, Al Ain

Film: Life Needs a Companion (2 minutes)

Category: Short Narrative

"My film is symbolic exploring why we all need someone in our lives. There are no dialogues, just music. This is my first film. I recently published a novel called Kingdom of Rehana."

Abdul Rahman Al Beloushi (30), government employee

Film: Desert Bulls (24 minutes)

Category: Short Documentary

"My film is based around the annual traditional bullfighting in Fujairah. I follow the lives of three people: a 12-year-old who is taking his young bull fighting for the first time, a 27-year-old regular whose bull has never won and a 30-year-old who returns with his champion bull to reclaim the title. Each of them have an unique way of taking care of their bull and come to the competition hoping to win. Will the loser become a hero? Or will the hero lose his throne to a newcomer?

"I filmed this last year and it took me over a month. This is my third documentary but my first time participating in the EFC."

Fatima Al Suwaidi, applied media communication student at Higher Colleges of Technology, Sharjah

Film: Limpid Springs (5 minutes)

Category: Student Short Narrative

"The inspiration for my film came from observing children and their behaviour. My story is about two girls who fight over a toy and end up destroying it. After looking everywhere for someone to help fix it, the two girls make peace and fix the toy themselves. I think what I want to say through this film is that whatever our problems are, we can solve it ourselves without making a big deal out of it. This is my first film and it took about two months to make."

Fatima Abdullah, accountant

Film: Soul (9 minutes)

Category: Short Narrative

"I don't want to give away too much because I want people to discover the message of my film when watching it. It's about how we should look at the future and face it head on, not with our backs. This is my first film and first participation at the EFC. The film is based on a short story that I wrote.

"I have always been passionate about world films and I love to read and write."

Ahmad Zain (38), mechanical engineer

Film: Darkness (18 minutes)

Category: Short Narrative

"I want to take people back in time with my film, which is the story of a postman who goes about his job delivering letters and his importance to the village he works in. In this day of phones and e-mails, it's easy to forget the joy of writing letters and receiving them. The film was screened at a film festival in Russia. We filmed in Ras Al Khaimah at the heritage area and took about five days. I have made more than 15 films including shorts, documentaries and drama. My film Sea Shells was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. Last year my film Gheamt Shroog won the Best Film and the Best Script at the EFC. I am currently working on a documentary called Four Sides."

Waleed Al Shehhi (35), media lecturer at Higher Colleges of Technology, Ras Al Khaimah

Film: Wind (21 minutes)

Category: Short Narrative

"My film combines reality and fantasy and is a story about a father and son looking for water in a barren land. On their journey, they come across a fence beyond which they can see a great civilisation. The pair then do their best to cross the fence but their attempt is not without consequence.

"This is my seventh film. I have been participating in the EFC since 2006. My film Ahmed Suliman (2004) won the Best Arab Documentary at the Jordan Short Film Festival and a short fiction Aushba's Well (2004) took awards at the Muscat and Baghdad film Festivals. Water Guard (2007) and Door (2008) were both screened at the Dubai International Film Festival.

"I am currently working on another short film and feature."