“One eye on an Oscar'' is our summary of Abdulla Al Kaabi’s ambition and career journey as we captured on camera. The Emirati filmmaker is deserving of this description with a significant portfolio of work and numerous awards under his belt. Abdulla takes a seat in front of our camera and welcomes us with a beaming smile. He is wearing a kandoora, and is surrounded by vibrant art pieces that ornament the interior of his Jumeirah Beach villa.
Enchanted by the dreamy, artistic ambience, we couldn’t help but asking Abdulla about the value of art in his life. He answers us in a calm voice, “Art is the key to culture. Art is not just a painting or a sculpture; it is a way of speaking and looking.” He glances at the skeleton of a 16th century fountain from the Safavid Era, and then enthusiastically tells us about his plans to bring the piece back to life.
“Cinema is life for me… It is the opportunity to recreate life in front of the camera. Each work allows me to present different characters, to live their experiences and visualise them in front of the camera, because they are each a part of me as a writer and director.” He credits cinema for allowing him to live his dreams, the reason why he chose to become a filmmaker. “I wish we had the chance to live life more than once, so, therefore, I am grateful that filmmaking allows me to live these dreams, or else I would have traveled far into the unknown.”
Although the Emirati filmmaker has a wild desire to travel, he is deeply rooted in land of the emirate of Fujairah where he was raised and grew up with his father, his role model, by his side. While his early life was simple, it was not easy. “I witnessed my father becoming a self-made man by using all his courage. He had the ability to communicate with people without setting any boundaries for himself.” Abdulla, who has by all odds inherited the same courage, explains, “Courage is to be bold within your own mind, to be able to revise the barriers within yourself and recognise them and be able to overcome them. Courage is not only about breaking barriers.”
Barriers are what allow Abdulla to innovate and find creative ways to pass on the intended message, despite all the challenges directors in this region of the world face. According to him, these obstacles are what differentiate Arabic directors from others in the world who find it easier to express themselves. In one of his most significant works, his feature film Only Men Go to the Grave, which won the Muhr Emirati award at 2016’s Dubai International Film Festival, Abdulla aims to not only tackle controversy and taboos, but also embrace the divine dimensions of love apart from the harshness of “breaking barriers”.
“Each work reflects a specific place, time, and phase in my life when some current issues were tackled, and if I wanted to replicate the work, I wouldn’t be able to,” Abdulla stresses. Yet, there is a common theme throughout all his projects, which the filmmaker describes as, “the challenge that requires me to be creatively diverse. As a director, I try to be adaptable because cinema is constantly changing.” For example, Abdulla considers his short film, The Philosopher, starring French actor Jean Reno, a reflection of the time when he was studying filmmaking in France. “Back then, I had left everything behind and found myself in a strange country and a new culture, surrounded by a language I couldn’t speak. Many questions were going through my head about the origin of life and happiness and whether money and success would provide those for me. Through this experience, the idea of the film emerged.”
Despite the diverse nature of Abdulla’s work, the film Camel Tears speaks to his soul most ardently. This film, which won him the Pitching Forum award at the third Sharjah Film Platform, tells the love story of a Bedouin man and his camel. “Today, we desperately need to talk about love, passion, and peace, all of which go far beyond the relationship between a man and a woman. In Bedouin culture, love brings Bedouins and their animals together because they are their only companions after almighty God in the vast, empty desert.” The passion he has for this film brings out his confidence. “Making my voice heard and sending my unique message as an Emirati and Arabic filmmaker is, without any doubt, my key to the Oscars. Because we are a new voice in the international scene of cinema, and because the Oscars is an award that can showcase and celebrate cinema in this region, I will dedicate it to the Arab World where I grew up and feel proud of my culture and cinema heritage.”
Abdulla is currently working on a new project. The film, approached from a unique angle, is a documentary about the coronavirus pandemic in Abu Dhabi. The documentary was filmed at the peak of the crisis. This timing imposed many challenges, while the filmmaker worked to document the efforts of the front-line workers and transform the struggle into a story that will remain a part of the history of the UAE. “The work combines my experience in cinema, acting, and fiction. It tells the stories of five characters – starting with a doctor and a nurse, then a mortician, and ending with a midwife who gives life and hope.” Abdulla ends with the word “hope.” To him, this word means “daily soul nutrition,” and he notes the recency of the arrival of the Hope Probe on Mars. Abdulla commends the name; he believes that hope has no limits and no boundaries.