"We're not just going to see the movies," says Ahmed Zain. "We're going to see our movies. And that's good for us." No wonder he's proud. Zain and his colleague Ahmed Arshi have each been selected by Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage to take short films to the Cannes festival this week. They seem like canny picks: both won awards at last year's Middle East International Film Festival, so they represent some of the strongest cinematic talent in the country. But they also go some way to show the diversity of styles and subjects that the UAE's burgeoning filmmakers are embracing.
Zain's piece, Sea Shells, relates a parable-like narrative about a young man who has to conquer his fear of the sea in order to win his intended's hand. Quiet and pensive, it beat out flashier efforts to win the jury prize for Best Short Film at the MEIFF's Emirates Competition last year. Arshi's piece, meanwhile, won the award for Best Screenplay for The Plan, a seriocomic tale of a heist gone wrong. The finished short also includes a droll turn from Zain as a bungling kidnapper.
It may come as a surprise that such dissimilar filmmakers should show up in one another's projects. They certainly have different tastes. The 28-year-old Arshi, who studied film at Ryerson University in Toronto before returning to the UAE, lists his directorial heroes as Luc Besson, James Cameron and Mel Gibson, all definitive proponents of the macho blockbuster. By contrast Zain, 10 years older and largely self-taught, with a day job as an electrical engineer, states a preference for "the films that they show at the festivals" - art-house stuff, in other words. He was recently impressed by The Song of Sparrows, Majid Majidi's film about the redemption of a disgraced ostrich farmer that played at the Dubai International Film Festival last year.
Yet for all their differences, the two filmmakers are close. They met two years ago when Zain approached the Emirates Foundation for help with one of his projects. He made his petition to the organisation's project co-ordinator for arts and culture, who, it turned out, was Arshi. "I was telling him the story," says Zain, "and he said: 'I'm very interested in this story. I'll work with you on this.'"
As Arshi explains: "We worked together, and found out that we can work together." The pair went on to collaborate on several projects, most recently a documentary about Red Island in Ras al Khaimah. An abandoned fishing village on the island served as the location for Zain's Sea Shells. Zain wasn't the only director to be attracted by the ready-made set, either. "Most filmmakers use that area to film because you don't need a schedule, you don't need a permit and the houses are there," he says. Alas, the village has been scheduled for redevelopment. Zain and Arshi's documentary, Red Island in the Eyes of the Directors of the UAE, is an attempt to intercede on its behalf. "That area is 70 years old. It's the number one attraction for film-makers," says Arshi. "It's not only about filmmaking. It's about history as well."
For now, though, they have their eyes on the future. "What I'm looking forward to in Cannes is networking," says Arshi. "I really hope to network with filmmakers, producers, anyone who's involved in the film industry." Spoken like a true professional. He reasons that the current climate in the movie business ought to make him a valuable contact for other talents, too. "With Abu Dhabi's name coming up, as a hub for filmmaking," he says, "with Warner Bros coming and all that, people are more interested in the local filmmakers."
Next to Arshi, Zain seems reticent about his ambitions, though he admits: "I'm sure I will see many heroes there, and directors, and it's a beautiful thing to see them and talk to them. And take pictures of them." He laughs. "I always wanted to participate in Cannes," says Arshi. "It's a huge accomplishment." And it will be fascinating to see how they build on it. * Ed Lake