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Michele Ziolowski and her son Suhail in their home in Abu Dhabi. Michele's book on her son is being made into a film Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

I could sense a frisson of excitement in the otherwise tranquil air as I made my way up the Hajar Mountains of Fujairah to the sets of the movie Mountain Boy. The scenic mountains play an important role in the film as the story revolves around an autistic boy’s adventures of exploring the mountains.

The crew had just finished lunch and are busy working on lighting, costumes, set design and camera equipment, among other things.

Even as I am admiring the scenic locale, I see Michele Ziolkowski arriving with her son Suhail and husband Abdulla. The movie is based on a children’s book series written by Michele called The Boy Who Knew Mountains which was inspired by Suhail who is on the autism spectrum. Suhail and Abdullah proceed to a changing area to get ready for their shot as they are both playing cameos in the film.

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On the sets of Mountain Boy

A little away, I see an abaya-clad young woman inspecting the lighting and set before yelling ‘action’. She is Zainab Shaheen, an Emirati who is directing the film.

As the actors enact their roles, a small group of musicians begin performing and the drumbeats in the mountains is calming, almost hypnotic.

‘The filmmaking process is new to me. It makes me feel nervous and thrilled at the same time,’ admits Michele, the author of the book. ‘The book series is important to us as a family. While it is a work of fiction, the stories are based on our son and our experiences as a family. We hope that the story translates into an enjoyable film that also highlights a powerful message of inclusion.’

A meeting of like minds

The seed of making a movie was planted in 2019, during the lead-up to the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi, when Michele had a chance to meet Nancy Paton, a multi-award-winning director, screenwriter and producer. ‘I was hosting a series of book readings at schools, nurseries and centres for people of determination. One of these book readings took place at Nancy’s son’s school,’ says Michele. The duo ended up chatting about Suhail, the book, and the strong emotional messages that Michele hoped to convey in the series.

The story so moved Nancy that she decided to interview the family for her Youtube channel and as the story unfurled, Nancy was truly overwhelmed by it. ‘When Michele told me more about how it was based on the experiences of her own son, Suhail, I started thinking about how we could make it into a film. We kept in touch and eventually I pitched to her the idea of adapting it to the big screen. Thankfully, she loved the idea,’ she says.

Michele and Nancy bonded over their shared Australian-Polish heritage as well. ‘We realised that we both would have visited the Polish Club in Sydney at various times during our childhood. We also both went to the University of Sydney,’ says Michele.

They stayed in touch after that and met up again at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Here Nancy raised the idea of turning the series into a feature film shot on location in Fujairah with Emirati actors. ‘I liked the idea of adapting the books into another creative medium, and discussions began from there,’ says Michele.

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Michele, Suhail and Nancy Image Credit: Supplied

Initially, Michele suggested the adaptation should be an animation. Others suggested using a regular actor to essay the role of Suhail. ‘But I was adamant on Mountain Boy being an inclusive film, so we had to find a boy who is Emirati and, on the spectrum,’ says Nancy.

Auditions were done in schools around the country to give special kids a chance to act in a real feature film.

But the pandemic threw a spanner in the works and the project got delayed. Finally, this January they were finally able to start filming in Fujairah.

Nancy, the producer, is founder of Desert Rose Films, a female-focused production company that is renowned across the globe for its dynamic, compelling and female-led films. She is also President of Women in Film & TV – GCC, the first GCC chapter of the global organisation.

Growing up in Australia, Nancy’s inspiration comes from her mother, who worked as a teacher for differently abled students, and her experience mingling with those kids since the age of five. ‘I guess I always knew in some way that I will be highlighting their superpower, kindness and touching souls that are necessary in the world we live in today,’ she says.

After graduating from the University of Sydney she moved to New York City to study at the Atlantic Acting School. Her first job was at Michael Mailer Films, a Hollywood production company, where she explored her passion for directing and filmmaking. Later, while working at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London, she released her first award-winning screenplay, Daisy, which received more than 16 awards.

‘It wasn’t an easy film to market because it didn’t have any famous actors in it and the story was quite difficult in parts. So, competing with it was a huge challenge,’ recalls Nancy. ‘My goal was to educate people about epidermolysis bullosa (a rare condition that causes fragile, blistering skin) and to see it getting recognised with multiple awards was the best feeling ever. It made even more people curious to watch it and this helped spread awareness about the condition.’

Growing up watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Zainab always knew she wanted to be a filmmaker. Her first short film, inspired by the Scientist music video by Coldplay, was a silent film that told several different stories in reverse. She later went on to make a short narrative film, The Journey of Hope, based on her grandfather’s life. ‘My whole family was so emotional when they saw it and they were so proud of me. It was especially meaningful as we lost him in 2015,’ she says.

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Zainab Shaheen directing Mountain Boy

When Nancy approached Zainab to direct the film, the latter was a tad apprehensive. ‘I wasn’t sure if I was ready to start my journey into the industry. But Nancy and all the people around me believed in me and pushed me to say yes,’ says the young director.

‘I’m not doing this film for any awards or prizes. I’m actually doing it because I believe in the message of the story, and the power of film and the impact it can have.’

Motherhood trials and triumphs

Zainab, the director, calls ‘Cut’ and during the break, I see Suhail and Naser Saleh, the Emirati actor who plays him, sitting side by side, bonding over a few jokes. Suhail seems relaxed while Naser is observing his mannerisms.

Twelve-year-old Naser is a grade 6 student at Virginia International Private School, Abu Dhabi. In the autism spectrum himself, his parents were keen on casting him in this movie when they heard about the opportunity.

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Nasser Saleh on the sets of the film

‘The experience was something new for him and us. He struggled a lot while doing this work until he got over it. But he benefited a lot from learning self-confidence, as well as learning new words and improving his pronunciation,’ says Naser’s mother Hind.

A mother of six, she quit her regular job when Naser was diagnosed with autism, ADD and ADHD. She also studied Special Education Needs and is now a special needs teacher in a government school.

Work-life balance

Nancy admits that juggling the work-life balance is not easy. A mother of three children, she took six months off after having each child, to spend quality time nurturing them. ‘As a producer, your whole cast and crew become your children as well,’ she laughs. ‘I have to oversee everything and make sure things are vworking smoothly.’ She is grateful to her husband for supporting her all along the way, and also her mom for looking after her kids during her busy schedules.

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Nancy with her children

For Michele, highlighting Suhail’s cause is an ongoing journey. In 2019, she worked with documentary filmmaker and children’s book author Khadijah Kudsi on a short film about Suhail. The idea was to provide a glimpse into aspects of Suhail’s life. To do this, Khadijah and her team filmed Suhail at home, at school, at hippotherapy, in the mountains, and on a boat trip. ‘We discussed aspects of autism and how this applied to us as a family. Overall, we wanted to express Suhail’s beautiful spirit and how inclusion is such an essential aspect for us as a family,” she says.

The documentary film Suhail recently received an award for best film (Gulf Falcon Category) at the Al Ain International Film Festival.

A message on inclusion

Mountain Boy shines a light on the UAE’s beautiful landscape, culture and people, and touches on crucial subjects as varied as autism awareness, inclusivity, climate change and the importance of preserving Arabian heritage.

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Shooting in the Hajar mountains was memorable as Nancy and her crew had to weather everything from sandstorms to rain. ‘But this experience has further solidified my admiration for this beautiful emirate of the country,’ she says. ‘I think the film industry is lacking stories that focus on real people, real things and issues that are really going on. I want to do films about things that will create an impact and support anyone else who is trying to do this too because I know how difficult they are to create and how hard it can be to get funding for them. I know that creating action movies will make more money and get funding easier, but these ideas don’t resonate with me. I want people’s voices to be heard, to create a legacy and initiate positive change.’

‘Large-scale projects like this demonstrate just how much the Emirati film sector has grown in such a short space of time. We are ready to pour endless hard work, creativity, and imagination into this project, and we hope it will act as a timeless tribute to all the diverse and fascinating talents, enchanting stories, and mesmerizing landscapes of the UAE.’

For Michele, making the film was a great opportunity to combine her family’s love of Fujairah’s natural environment with the book series, while spreading the message of inclusion.

‘Suhail has just turned turn 16 and it’s only a matter of time until he gets too old for school. I have been brainstorming ideas for future employment opportunities. I’m not sure how this will translate into an occupation, but we will do our best to create a role for Suhail,’ she says.