Amal Al Agroobi has her sights set on two things: becoming the greatest filmmaker in the world. And a billionaire. As far as dreams go, these are neither of the simple nor of the pipe variety. During our Zoom interview, the award-winning Emirati filmmaker also establishes that these aren’t dreams, but her goals. The path to these goals might be arduous and fraught with setbacks but they never extinguished the neuroscientist-turned-filmmaker, scriptwriter and producer’s passion for cinema.
Amal’s move must have surely shocked many. She quit a cushy, well-paying job to start from square one in the UAE’s fledgling film industry with absolutely no connections or training. But she clearly had the talent – her directorial debut Half Emirati, a short documentary about Emiratis of mixed parentage, was nominated for best film at the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).
Filmmaking, she believes, is an adventure and her success is the product of sheer perseverance. “I knew things wouldn’t be handed to me and I wasn’t lucky enough to study or be encouraged in filmmaking. The film industry was seen in a [morally ambiguous] light in the UAE. It wasn’t smiled upon for an Arab Muslim woman to be involved in films. So I had to go chase it,” she says, of deciding against pursuing a filmmaking degree and opting instead to learn through reading, research, video tutorials, a training programme at a production company (“Wasn’t a great experience. I didn’t learn much”) and talking to people in the know.
The following year, her documentary The Brain That Sings, which explores the lives of two autistic children in the UAE and the impact of music therapy on their lives, bagged the Best Film award in the Emirates NBD People’s Choice Award category at DIFF, establishing her as more than a one-hit wonder. Amal is now considered among the crème de la crème of up-and-coming filmmakers in the UAE, a groundbreaking name in her field. She has attended prestigious film festivals and awards such as Cannes and the Oscars as a guest and was far from star-struck, but considers them to be great networking opportunities.
“To be honest when I was at the Oscars it just seemed like a regular event to me. You think you’re going to be excited by the presence of actors and actresses you’ve looked up to but now you’re excited because you can call them colleagues.” Last month, she was invited to speak at Dubai Studio City’s latest Reel Talks session, a digital weekly series featuring leading film industry figures.
Her repertoire backs up this accolade with both documentary and fiction, spanning genres such as sci-fi (Vanish in Smoke), horror, and dramedy (Under The Hat) among others. A Swedish co-produced horror film and historical archival documentary of the UAE are in the pipeline. The Covid-19 pandemic forced her to cut short the latter’s filming in the UK and return to her home in Sharjah. In true documentarian fashion, she chronicled the journey on Instagram, and her no-holds-barred footage, including examinations at medical check points and self-quarantine in a Dubai hotel to protect her family, went viral. It bumped up her followers, “which was a bonus”, but more importantly underscored her filmmaking’s central ethos – contributing to humanity and society.
“As filmmakers, we have a socio-political responsibility to change the world to become a better place and tell stories that entertain, inspire, influence and make them aware. I think of myself as a social activist and film is my medium to express my ideas and speak to my audiences.”
It’s one of two non-negotiable pillars of her work. The other being, story is king. Amal locked horns with a grant body and flatly refused to insert gratuitous scenes in The Brain That Sings to flatter an official.
When an interested French producer suggested she Westernise her film Under The Hat by giving the protagonist a girlfriend, she sent him packing.
“I’m not a propagandist and will never put out work that has been tampered with. I want to tell the reality of how we live our lives in the Middle East without feeding into stereotypes.”
Often this involves showcasing sensitive subjects beyond “the desert and the falcon” and tends to ruffle feathers – whether it’s Half Emirati, which discusses serious issues some Emiratis whose mothers are of a different nationality face (Amal herself is half-Syrian); or questioning the conventional narrative of domestic worker victimisation in the region with Doris Domestic, a yet-to-be released feature film that looks at how a maid exploits her employers. “These are both true stories from the perspective of a lot of Emiratis. I’m not about catering to a politically correct viewpoint,” Amal says bluntly of her choices.
She also doesn’t mince words when calling out sexism in the Emirati film industry. “Perception about women in film is now positive because the more successful, powerful, inspiring and influential filmmakers in the region are women such as Annemarie Jacir, Haifaa Al Mansour, etc., who are finding success abroad too. But there is ego and jealousy when [some] men see us doing better than them.” It’s a state of affairs that upsets Amal, considering the Emirati filmmaking community is a fledgling one but with enormous potential.
While she champions gender equality, she believes it’s her talent and not her gender that should steer audiences to buying tickets to her movies. “Watch a film because you’re interested in it because that’s how we’ll normalise [female filmmakers] in the industry.”
Another factor Amal believes will bring Emirati films commercial success is making them in English. It’s an opinion at odds with the recent debate Korean film Parasite triggered about how to watch foreign films. I suggest subtitles, but Amal clarifies, explaining Korean dramas and Bollywood are made in their native languages because those countries have huge populations that consume them. Subtitling them for foreign audiences makes sense, she says. “Ninety per cent of our country is made up of expatriates and majority of young Emiratis educated in international schools speak more English than Arabic.”
When I revisit her goal to become a billionaire, Amal laughs. “Money isn’t a motivator but I’m aware of its power. Money would help me help people reach their potential and support their businesses, if I were a billionaire. Especially arts and culture,” she says, outlining the financial hurdles of funding films in the UAE where grants and private equity are scarce. It has seen her crowdfund some of her films. “This is why I think OTT platforms such as Amazon and Netflix play a big part in our industry because those guys come on board and support [financially].”
Who is the filmmaker she thinks is the greatest? None, she’s quick to say. Amal credits her love for cinema to a slew of fantasy, horror and superhero flicks she watched growing up, such as The Lord of the Rings, Matilda, V for Vendetta and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The self-confessed fantasist hopes to be the benchmark people strive towards and has launched a YouTube channel to educate budding filmmakers. “I want to be the one people aspire to be. I’m happy being myself.”
Further excerpts from the interview:
What are the top five Emirati movies you’d recommend to first-time expatriate viewers?
Sea Shadow by Nawaf Al Janahi, it’s an interesting and authentic tale. I would recommend the documentarian Nujoom Al Ghanem’s work. Her best one I think is Al Mureed about Sufism. Mazraat Yado (Grandmother’s Farm) by Ahmed Zain is a very ‘Emriati’ film. Abdullah Al Kaabi’s film Only Men Go to The Grave and then I’d say mine for sure – The Brain That Sings or Half Emirati.
How has being half-Emirati shaped you and your creativity?
Being half in any respect allows you to be a part of different cultures, get involved in different languages, different celebrations. You don’t have to be half-Emirati though to be more unique. You just have to travel and live different cultures – I had that opportunity growing up in Belgium and Turkey. I speak six languages, I train and I rock climb and was very much a tomboy, so that will influence the stories that I tell and the way in which I tell them.
How have you been keeping busy during quarantine?
I’ve been quite productive during quarantine! I did a short stop-motion animation, I’ve been writing, I’ve been working on film-related activities, launched a YouTube channel and I’m writing a TV pilot.
What’s easier – documentaries or fiction?
They are two different beasts. I’m good at and enjoy talking to people and when people talk to you, they give you authentic stories. So, back into the editing room you can pick and choose whatever is interesting or shocking to create a story that resonates. I find that so much easier. Whereas, a fictional story comes from your head and you’re giving characters personalities and creating dialogues. Characterisation has always been something of a weakness for me and I’m learning to improve it bit by bit.