"The event started as Emirati Voices. At that time it was fantastic to see. As a college graduate, I did a student film, and for it to be shown on the big screen was like a dream come true, you know?" Hamad Al Awar vividly recalls his first encounter with the Dubai International Film Festival's programme to foster Gulf filmmaking talent. "I think it's the dream of any filmmaker, actually, to get the most people to watch his film," he says.
The 25-year-old animator featured in its line-up back in 2006: his computer-animated short, Once Upon a Seed, told the story about a young shoot struggling to grow between two massive trees, a smart metaphor for the state of the Gulf's fledgling movie business. The film took the DIFF award for Exceptional Talent in Filmmaking that year. Now Al Awar is back with another digital animation, Hammer and Nails, a similarly abstract concept in which an over-mighty mallet is toppled by the nails it attempts to flatten. In a way, the more ferocious tone of this new piece complements the newly expanded and supercharged contest. Emirati Voices has become Gulf Voices; the line-up now includes 10 entries, and submissions were accepted from across the range of GCC countries.
The result is a remarkable smorgasbord of styles and concerns. Hard-hitting documentaries rub up against lackadaisical farces; poetic dramas and satirical squibs are brought into strange contrast. Yet an excitement about the whole process of making motion pictures pervades the series, and at their best, the entries reveal talents that are ready to graduate from national or regional promotions. Take the slick digital image manipulation of the fresh-faced Omani brothers Dawood and Yasir al Kiyumi, born in 1985 and 1986 respectively. Their very short short, Reality Beats, in which two boys struggle on a plunging cliff-top, marks them out as naturals for the kind of punchy advertising they say they want to pursue. Or consider the Saudi director Abdullah Al Eyaf's moving short drama, Rain, in which we follow a young deaf boy and a temporarily blinded youth through a day of strange reversals. In its meditative focus and lyrical deployment of recurring visual motifs, it recalls nothing so much as the Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Then there's Mission of Hope, a tough-minded piece of video journalism by the Emirati directors Aisha Mohammed Obaid Al Muhairi and Asma Ahmed: it looks at the costs of drug addiction both to the individual and to society, and bravely resists drawing any simple conclusions. There's satisfaction to be taken in the fact that many of the standout pieces came from the five Emirati entrants. Nasser al Yakoubi's Mountain Sheikh is an astonishing documentary about a wizened manual labourer from the desert around the director's home in Ras al Khaimah. This serene, strangely gnomelike figure works long solitary days breaking rocks in the hot sun, as the Clash once sang. These, however, are rocks the size of Land Cruisers. In long, panoramic shots, we watch as he scampers barefoot over jagged red shale, dressed only in a tied blanket, heaving away at a crowbar to lever boulders down a system of wooden slides. All around, the echoing horizons are as barren as the moon. "Nobody can do my job," he tells the camera. A short-lived Pakistani colleague quit the desert saying: "Not for a thousand dirhams could I move that rock!"
At one point he lifts his blanket to reveal a leg pitted with wounds. After one particularly nasty injury, he had to take drastic measures: wrapping the calf, eating some dates and having a sleep. His life is divided between toil and prayer. It's an unfathomably rigorous existence, though borne with apparent tranquillity. Al Yakoubi, a 41-year-old sometime director and full-time police security adviser, first learned about his subject in a newspaper. "It is a strange job," he says, "almost idealised. And he is still doing this job now. So this film was a comparison between this man and what he's doing and new kinds of equipment and all the big machines that are being used to do the same thing." As an evocation of the desert's dead expanses and superhuman scale, the film is a triumph. It would have been still more fascinating to discover more about the man behind the astonishing feats - to have followed him home, perhaps. But there's no denying that Al Yakoubi has found a superb subject and shot it with élan. He has more documentaries in the works: if they're half as good as this, they should be worth a look.
Al Awar, the director of the excellent Hammer and Nails, is another Emirati talent who turns out to have a surprising connection to the police: beside his creative work, he runs an animation department employed to recreate crime scenes. "We work with different specialists and we take all that data, we take facts, we don't try to interpret," he says. "Because my team is all designers and animators, we like to go and play with the stuff. But when it comes to crime scenes we have to stick with facts as much as possible."
Al Awar is a burly, straight-talking character, recognisable both as a responsible new father and an enterprising technician. "My ambition is to really push this field in this region, and all of its applications," he says. "And that's where I found even a place for animation in the police." Yet the businesslike exterior belies the aesthetic sensitivity that informs his films: Hammer and Nails invests its poetic idea with drama as well as technical sophistication. As the hammer pounds away with mounting hysteria, it becomes genuinely frightening; the backlash from the nails is both chilling and inspiring. It's hard to believe the film is a solo production: in its union of vision, style and technique it might easily have sprung from some giant, Pixar-style talent factory.
Nothing could be more different from Hammer and Nails than The Rescue, Saeed al Dhaheri's irresistibly goofy ensemble comedy. It tells the story of a genial man-mountain who borrows a friend's car, gets it stuck in the desert, and then has to be recovered by a buffoonish search party. Along the way through the dunes, the car stereo gets stolen - apparently by a thief on a bicycle - and there is a good deal of immensely funny dancing. It's gentle fun, nonsensical and good-humoured, and greatly ornamented by its irrepressible star, Abdullah al Ramsi. Amazingly, he wasn't al Dhaheri's first choice for the part.
"Actually the role was not for him," al Dhaheri tells me. "Somebody skipped, and I called him as a backup. I needed somebody who can dance well, so we practised the night before!" He chuckles. This laid-back approach is typical of the 34-year-old Al Ain director. Trained as a an engineer, he works in IT support for an Abu Dhabi oil company. He got into filmmaking as a source of relief. "I've had enough seriousness in my life," he says. During the making of his first film for the Emirates film competition in 2002, he said, "I was on medication at that time. I was having acidic problems with my stomach. And after making the film, I was off the medication. So whenever I feel tired or am getting sick, I go and do them."
Happy-go-lucky he may be, but this doesn't indicate any lack of passion for film. Studying in the US, he says: "I went to the normal video shops there... and I felt hunger. I needed to watch more and more." He immersed himself in cinema from Japan, Hong Kong and Europe - "There was a lot of variety!" he says. Pressed for a favourite, he doesn't have to think for long. "I love a Japanese movie by Beat Takeshi. It's called Kikujiro. It's so simple, and it has so many light, funny moments, and it's very heartwarming. I want to make these kinds of movies, you know? Movies that will give you a smile, and you will have your eyes full of tears."
He goes on: "I want to make the kinds of movies, where the warmth of your smile will melt the tears in your eyes." Here's hoping he gets the chance. Al Dhaheri is now working on a feature-length screenplay: about a third of it is down on paper. Admirers of The Rescue may be tempted to start hounding him to finish the thing off. But restraint may be advisable here: it won't help the film get made if a lot of stress brings his stomach complaint back. He'll have to do it in his own sweet time.