The hue and cry surrounding 24-year-old Emirati film-maker and self-confessed movie aficionado Abdullah Al Kaabi's first feature film, The Philosopher, which premiered in December 2010 at the Dubai International Film Festival, has not quite subsided, with the film picking up three awards at the recently-concluded Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood, and being selected for the Heart of Gold International Film Festival in Australia. Testimony perhaps that hard work and a single-minded pursuit of one's goals can help one achieve unparalleled, international success, whether one is Arab, American or indeed from any part of the world.
Not one to rest on his laurels Al Kaabi is already deep into directing his next project, which is now in pre-production and filming in Paris. Born and raised in the emirate of Fujairah, young Al Kaabi moved to Dubai when he was 16 years old to continue his studies at the American University of Sharjah.
While still studying he was scouted to present Green Light Charity, a prime-time reality show revolving around four Arab youths running a charity organisation in Dubai. The show was aired on Dubai TV in 2005, and he believes in many ways it fuelled his passion for the media. He then became a lead anchor on Male Box, another popular men's lifestyle show on Dubai TV, encompassing cars, men's fashion and sports.
Carrying on in his avatar of presenter, Al Kaabi presented Tawasol on Sama Dubai, a live prime-time weekly talk show, while also working as a full-time model/actor for print media and TV commercials in the region. Always certain that working behind the scenes, directing a film, was what he wanted to do most Al Kaabi moved to Paris in 2009 to pursue his master's degree in film-making and a career in cinema.
Al Kaabi knows exactly how he got bitten by the film bug. "From a very young age, my parents instilled in me the passion and curiosity to know more. I am a very curious person. It was I think a sort of combination of factors - my mother is an ardent reader, and her passion for collecting encyclopaedias of different kinds, which she lovingly arranged on the shelves of our library at home, encouraged us to read early.
"I studied at this exclusive British academy in Fujairah, and nearby was this amazing local VHS rental store from where I would rent five films each week and fly with my imagination. I was moved by the power of how films can touch the masses and communicate. So I resolved to become a film-maker with a message to impart through his craft."
Precisely the reason why he chose to adapt Baggio's Story by Charlie Fish into a screenplay for The Philosopher, his first full-length film. "The personal message behind the story is that friendship is a valuable resource to possess in life. Companionship, brotherhood and hospitality are some of the themes found in this story - all qualities that are rooted in the Arab culture. When I read the story, I related to the characters and I knew I would enjoy depicting the faces of Baggio and Leo into a script. In a world where there is so much discrimination of people based on their differences in class, age, sex, belief or race, I think it is important to showcase a story that speaks of the opposite as being true, and that encourages one to overlook the differences when meeting someone new, and look at that person for who he really is," Al Kaabi explains.
As a young man, still completing his master's degree in film arts, Al Kaabi currently lives between Paris and Dubai, juggling his time between completing his education, making his first international feature film and spending time with his family in the UAE.
"I guess I am fortunate, and blessed by God to have a loving family, to have got the best education and to have travelled the world at a young age. I love arts and culture, a big reason for being based in Paris," he says simply.
The Philosopher gave him the opening he was looking for as a director of repute, and he confesses to feeling humbled by its runaway success at DIFF and after.
"I really felt it wasn't me out there on the red carpet, when I saw the masses of people cheering and the press and photographers or the 1,300 audience who came to watch the film! [I was] humbled and delighted to see the pride in my parents' eyes when I was up on stage representing the film with Jean Reno. Perhaps that was the moment when I knew that all that hard work had actually paid off!"
Al Kaabi is generous in his praise for his predecessors, names like Ali F. Mustafa and Nayla Al Khaja, who have in many ways set the stage for their countrymen who wish to follow them into film-making.
"Nayla and Ali have worked very hard in building the infrastructure in this industry, I know them both personally, regard them as brother and sister, and am very proud of their achievements, here's wishing them every success in their future lives," he says.
Typically philosophical about his advice to fellow Emiratis who want to follow in his footsteps, Al Kaabi says: "Remember today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday. The time is now. Regardless of which career choice you want to make, make sure your career is your passion and do not settle for second best."
I am a young man with a mission. I would describe myself as driven, committed, positive and determined. My biggest weakness is that I can be too nice sometimes!
I like reading autobiographies - it's a free lesson to learn from other's experiences! I believe in my generation and I believe in films.
I am passionate about the environment and consider myself an avid environmentalist here. I think challenges are an uphill struggle (with a purpose), things get better as long as you keep thinking of the view from the top. I try every day to stay true to myself.
I get really furious about wars, the unfortunate people with no one to care for them, the difficult living situations, discrimination, (those violating) animal rights and the (state of the) environment.
If I had to list my favourite things they would be: Yoga, Pilates, running in the early mornings, afternoon siestas, Sundays in Paris, sea trips, my friends, my collection of books and orange juice!
Me and my work: It doesn't feel like work. I see myself overworking myself to the point of exhaustion sometimes, but never complain since I love what I do and I am thankful for that.
My family is what I call home. My mum once told me when I was a child - ‘You are like a bird, fly as high as you want because you will always know that you have this loving, warm nest waiting for you.'
My focus is always geared towards my goal, but on a daily level, I am usually always distracted and drifting off somewhere. It drives my friends and team nuts! I have a short focus span!
My secret to success: There is no secret really. It was a combination of setting yourself some clear goals and of course my family's blessings, faith in God and working twice as hard. I know exactly where I want to be in ten years!
My fondest childhood memory is of my family's fishing cruises in the Fujairah coast. How I love my hometown!
My best friends today are the same friends I had since I was a toddler. I regard them as siblings.
My mantra for keeping in touch with the world is to always make time to read the news, even when I have to read it on my mobile phone's screen. I am also an avid social networker.
My motto in life has always been ‘Give everything, expect nothing'. That way, you never feel regret.
My biggest fans are my nieces and nephews, especially my beautiful ten-year-old niece, who has photos of me from different publications stuck above her bed!
My worst critic… is myself!
My great moment is when someone tells me - ‘You make us proud'. When that happens, I know that I am a part of them and that realisation humbles me.
My most memorable and challenging experience in life so far has been to find almost 100 technicians, 7 trucks, 2 trailers, a full set, including the biggest crane in Europe, all waiting for my direction at 5am on the morning of the first day of the shoot (while filming The Philosopher).
The things I feel are essential to survive and excel in film-making today are vision and action. Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare. So set your goals to know which direction to take. As for the challenges, the film industry is a newborn in the UAE, so having faith in it is not as easy as in Hollywood. We have been number one in many fields lately, now it's time for film.
They say life is a great teacher. What I have learnt so far is that no matter how much people love you, you will always have one set of parents. Always remain true to yourself, keep it real and recognise that once you allow all this fame and celebrity status to get into your head, you are finished. Always stay humble and grounded and never forget to say ‘thank you' and ‘please'.
As a child I was, happy, curious. My influences in life I would say are Kubrick, Sofia Coppola , Yousuf Chahine, Godard and the whole French New Wave movement.
On a regional or local level, I am very impressed with the work of Lebanese film-maker Nadine Labaki. I am working on my first international big-budget feature film, Culture Shock. It will also star Jean Reno (in only my second film), Virginie Ledoyen (international audiences might know her from The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio). We are waiting for two other big names to give us the go-ahead for coming on board.
Did you know?
Abdullah Al Kaabi is working on a romantic comedy, set partly in Paris and partly in the UAE, it is in the tradition of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Notting Hill.