Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Emirati director Nawaf Al Janahi is on a mission to educate

The Emirati director Nawaf Al Janahi has launched the Emirati Cinema Campaign, hoping to raise the profile of the local movie scene.

The director Nawaf Al Janahi, is launching the Emirati Cinema Campaign. Antonie Robertson / The National
The director Nawaf Al Janahi, is launching the Emirati Cinema Campaign. Antonie Robertson / The National

There’s a tendency for directors to take on some fairly erratic behaviour once they’ve achieved a certain level of success. Tim Burton and his long-term partner Helena Bonham Carter live in separate, adjoining London flats; Cecil B DeMille took to wearing riding boots and carrying a small whip on set to assert his authority; and there simply isn’t space here to start on Werner Herzog’s idiosyncrasies.

The Emirati director Nawaf Al Janahi, however, seems to have retained his sanity since the success of his second feature, Sea Shadow, which was released in cinemas across the Gulf in 2011, before spending two months at the top of Virgin’s DVD charts on release late last year.

Far from taking the opportunity to demonstrate his artistic temperament by developing outrageous quirks or developing an ego the size of the set of Titanic, his next project is remarkably sober, though undoubtedly challenging – he wants to raise the profile of Emirati cinema across the nation. His chosen medium is a project he calls the Emirati Cinema ­Campaign.

“It’s a project that I thought needed doing in such a small and young field in the UAE,” he says. “Even though we have major film events and are doing really well in terms of progress, we still have people giving and getting the wrong information. There are people who don’t realise we have films in theatres, even people working in the field, and people who don’t know about all the festivals we have in the country.”

Al Janahi adds: “Sometimes I think the media isn’t getting to all the people it needs to and I thought it would be good to reach out to those people in a different way if traditional media isn’t reaching them.”

With this in mind, a key part of the campaign will be a week-long, highly visual tour of all seven emirates in March using a huge campaign flag and campaigners on bikes giving information to passers-by and answering their questions. But the campaign won’t be organising screenings as it tours the emirates. “Plenty of other people already do that and there are festivals and showcases, too,” says Al Janahi.

“The UAE film calendar is really busy all year round, so we don’t need a campaign for that. This is about informing people where to go and watch the films. If someone comes and asks: ‘Where do I go to watch Emirati films?’ I want to be able to give them a list so they can go and do that.”

Of course, this means that whoever is riding Al Jahani’s bikes will need to know the answers to these questions, so will he be spending the next month putting a small army of cyclists through cinema history boot camp? “It is a challenge,” he concedes. “I’ll need riders who know the answers, but I have a surprise in store here. I can’t tell you who yet, but there will definitely be someone very interesting leading the bike team.”

Intriguing. So what will a typical day on the tour look like? “Right now, I have a plan to have bicycles touring parks and small neighbourhoods off the beaten track, while a campaign car will be on the main streets. It’s tougher to get interactions with a car as it can’t really stop and talk to people, but I want people to stop the bikes and ask the riders questions – what is the flag? what does it represent? – questions about Emirati cinema.

“It’s about trying to engage the community as much as I can through feelings and emotions. If they love something they’ve seen and want to see more, then they have to help build that base, we have to get together and do that.”

Another crucial part of Al Janahi’s task is to define exactly what constitutes Emirati cinema. There’s a tendency in some quarters to offer a monocultural definition whereby a film must be funded, written and shot in the UAE with a predominantly Emirati crew and cast to tick all the boxes, but the director is keen to avoid this narrow approach.

“If you look at history, lots of nationalities go into making Emirati films. The fact is, we lack Emirati cinematographers, sound engineers and so on, so we shouldn’t be forcing Emirati filmmakers to do jobs they’re not yet able to do, but instead creating a good product that people will want to watch and learning at the same time.

“The most recent Emirati film to get a theatre release is Champ of the Camp. The director isn’t Emirati, but he lives in Dubai, it’s shot in Dubai, it’s about Dubai – how much more Emirati can it get?”

Al Janahi also hopes to create a reliable single source of information on Emirati cinema to replace the now-defunct archive on the Emirates Film Competition’s website but all this takes time and money, of course. If you’re keen to get involved and help build that base, check out the options on the campaign’s Aflamnah page (www.aflamnah.com/en/emirati-cinema-campaign/).