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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Emirati director's new animation, Catsaway offers lots of Abu Dhabi nostalgia

From the Volcano Fountain to the Clock Tower, Fadel Al Mheiri's animated film about a group of stray cats takes you on a trip around old Abu Dhabi as they search for a new home

Emirati director Fadel Al Mheiri. Delores Johnson / The National
Emirati director Fadel Al Mheiri. Delores Johnson / The National

Novelist and film director Fadel Al Mheiri is turning his hand to a new art form with his latest project, Catsaway – a movie about a group of street cats trying to find a home as the city rapidly evolves around them.

The multi-talented Al Mheiri has already had film success at the Dubai International Film Festival (Diff) with his live-action “guerilla” movie Abood Kandaishan, which was nominated for 2014’s Muhr Emirati award. Now, he’s turning his hand to animation.

“I’d originally conceived Catsaway as a [live-action] TV series and had a pilot for it, but the mechanics and technicality of making cats speak to humans was just crazy, so to cut a long story short, I turned the series into an animation,” he says.

The movie is set in Abu Dhabi in 1999 and much-loved, old landmarks such as the Volcano Fountain, the Old Souq and the Clock Tower play an important role.

Catsaway. Courtesy Fadel Al Mheiri
Catsaway. Courtesy Fadel Al Mheiri

“All the cats used to live in the Volcano Fountain,” he says, “where they had a spa and they’d go to the Old Souq where they’d eat all the nice shawarmas. But that started to fade away, then they ended up in the water tank area in Khalidiya – it’s one of the only squares in Abu Dhabi that’s remained untouched for the last 50 years,” Al Mheiri explains.

The team behind the film is currently in the process of producing a trailer now that the computer animation is complete. His partners include an Irish production house who are handling the technical side of animation.

“We’re following the Disney classic style of hand drawn animation,” Al Mheiri says. “We didn’t want to go 3-D, mainly because we wanted the backdrop of Abu Dhabi to be part of the animation, and 3-D doesn’t give justice to that.”

As well as the Irish connection, Al Mheiri says the project has “attracted interest from industry figures in Australia” – his partner on the project is Australian co-writer Phil Parker – and, while Abood Kandaishan, which was set in Ras Al Khaimah, was a distinctly Emirati affair, the writer-director clearly feels his new film has broad appeal, as it will be in English.

“I learnt a lot from my first film – if you have a small film with a small budget, sure it’s OK to just show it in the UAE, but if you have a big film with big potential, then why not go global?” he asks.

Despite his ambitions, Al Mheiri admits the greatest interest in the film to date has come from a movie stand at last year’s Abu Dhabi Book Fair.

Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of State for FNC Affairs with Fadel Al Mheiri at the Catsaway stand at last year's AD Book fair.
Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of State for FNC Affairs with Fadel Al Mheiri at the Catsaway stand at last year's AD Book fair.

“We made a 3-D model of the water tank area and some sculptures of the cats, and we got amazing reaction, especially with the old landmarks that have disappeared.”

It was then that Al Mheiri realised the movie had a unique selling point beyond the average animated movie.

“We thought – aha, the nostalgia value. This is our selling point. Everyone was like ‘amazing. When’s this out? We need to tell our kids about it’.

“You might say ‘so what? It’s just an old water fountain, just an old souk,’ but it’s more than that. It’s to do with culture intertwined with history. That weird effect you get when you see somewhere that you remember from high school, and also there’s a hidden story about that with the main character, but I’m not giving that away just yet.”

A 3D model from Fadel Al Mheiri's Catsaway stand at last year's Abu Dhabi Book Fair.
A 3D model from Fadel Al Mheiri's Catsaway stand at last year's Abu Dhabi Book Fair.

No doubt many will be following Al Mheiri and his furry friends closely as they embark on their journey from page to computer screen to cinema screen.

The next stage looks to be the release of the first trailer, which the team hope to use to secure further funding for the next stage of production, with the trailer set to release in September or October this year.