The young Emirati director Nawaf Al Janahi discusses cinema in the UAE today and his aspirations for the future.
Filming for the future: Emirati director voices hope
When Nawaf Al Janahi takes to the red carpet and scans the crowd at his film’s premiere this month, there will be two faces missing.
For as the flash lightbulbs pop and fans chant his name, eager for an autograph, there will be one ever-present thought: that the two people he most wanted to share his success with are no longer here to celebrate with him.
The young director, who carries aloft the hopes of an Emirati film industry like an Olympic torch bearer, would have loved to savour that brief moment with his father Mohamed Al Janahi and his mother, Sawsan Baraka.
Neither lived to see him direct a feature-length film. But when Sea Shadow opens to a packed cinema at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, it will be the culmination of a long road travelled first by his actor father, who sowed the seeds of his passion for the film industry, brought to fruition by his son in the first Emirati feature funded by Image Nation, the film-making arm of Abu Dhabi Media.
“It would have meant a lot to have them at my premiere,” says Al Janahi. “I get my artistic ability from my father and my strength from my mother. That is what keeps me going in my struggles.”
Sea Shadow, an emotive coming-of-age drama set in Ras Al Khaimah, marks much more than the dreams of one father realised by his son. For when Al Janahi senior began acting, there was little in the way of opportunity in the Emirates. He took roles in Arab TV shows and theatre but a film industry was non-existent.
In the space of a generation, that scenario has undergone as remarkable a transformation as Abu Dhabi’s ever-changing landscape and cultural growth.
Image Nation has described Sea Shadow as a “significant milestone in the evolution of the film industry in the UAE” and a sign of a commitment to “help grow a generation of film-makers”.
Executives say it will open the door to a rash of opportunities for budding producers and directors to hone their craft and produce films of an international standard. Thanks to partnerships with Hollywood film companies, which are expected to work closely with local talent, and extensive funding coffers, the film is set to be the first of many.
“We see our mission as participating in the social, cultural and economic growth of Abu Dhabi,” says Michael Garin, Image Nation’s chief executive.
Al Janahi was a natural choice to showcase Emirati talent. He had already won acclaim with his first feature film The Circle, or Al Dayra, which premiered at the Gulf Film Festival in 2009.
But as a torch bearer, the shy, unassuming 34-year-old from Abu Dhabi is an improbable icon, admitting he once sneaked in a back entrance to avoid a red carpet appearance at his own film screening.
When we meet in the lobby of the Media One Hotel in Dubai, his attire of jeans and a grey T-shirt, floppy hair falling into his eyes and wrist adornments, makes him look more Californian surf dude than director. Get him talking about film though and his intense eyes fire up with passion.
He started young: “I had my first role with my father when I was 7. My father was an Emirati actor and director and was one of the pioneers.
“He would take me to locations and studios and they always needed some boy to play this child or that. It certainly inspired me to act.”
At 14, while studying at Al Mutanabi public school for boys, he decided to pursue the arts but says: “Ironically my father was totally against me studying film. He was being a father and thought there was not enough pay in it.”
His teenage years were difficult ones; as well as battles with his father, his Egyptian mother, who ran a tailoring business, was diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was 14. It was the start of a lengthy, and ultimately futile, battle for health and Al Janahi retreated to his bedroom, watching up to eight films a day.
He first dreamed of becoming an actor, then realised he was “more curious about the way films were made”.
“I was always trying to find out how things were done and more concerned with the art of cinema and how stories were told visually,” he says.
His career choice led to a stand-off with his father, who refused to support him, knowing the hardships of trying to survive in the entertainment industry. His son was resolute and while his friends left for universities abroad, he vowed not to study anything but his first love.
“He did not want to pay my tuition so I told him I would stay at home. I did that for 10 months after I left school, just hanging around my room,” he says.
Eventually he won a place at the Higher Institute of Cinema in Egypt. Shortly after he began his course, his father intervened, securing him a scholarship from the Ministry of Information and Culture. It funded a two-year film production course at the City College of San Francisco, which laid the groundwork for Al Janahi’s training as a director.
“I think he wanted to stick to his word and refuse to pay for anything,” chuckles Al Janahi. “He felt if I was going to study film properly, I needed to go beyond the region.”
He returned to the Emirates in 1999 but was immediately dismayed by the lack of opportunities.
“I did not want to live in the US but the reality here was so shocking in terms of cinema,” he says. “There was nothing, only the commercial theatres playing Hollywood and Bollywood films, but there were no film festivals and you could not even see other Emirati film-making because it was so alien.”
He did not flee though and decided instead to create what did not exist: “My first objective was figuring out how I could make a film here and where I was going to screen it. All of those elements were very frustrating. I was trying to get funding but that did not happen because the environment was not ready for film-making.”
There was another reason to stay; his mother’s health was increasingly frail and shortly after his return, she died at the age of 45.
Realising he had to make a living, Al Janahi got a job with Abu Dhabi Television but was a long way from where he wanted to be.
It was an off-the-cuff conversation which prepared the ground for what was to come. Sitting in Abu Dhabi’s Cultural Foundation in January 2001, Al Janahi and two friends bemoaned the lack of opportunities to show and make films.
“We were discussing why we did not have a film festival,” he says. “That led to a conversation about how many people in society were like us. Our main concern was to show society that there had been Emirati film-making. The ones who came before us and tried to make films had it even harder and switched to another field rather than carrying on.”
The three called everyone they knew and collated 58 short films from the Emirates, which they screened over three days at the Cultural Foundation. The turnout was disappointing, with no more than 40 people in a 1,000-seater auditorium.
But to realise the wider implications of what they had started, one only has to look at the calibre of the trio. For aside from Al Janahi, it included Ali Al Jabri, who went on to direct the Emirates Film Competition encouraging local talent, and Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the current artistic director of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).
Neither annual event existed back then but that initial three-day event morphed into the Emirates Film Competition the following year and DIFF was launched in 2004.
“I believe it was the start of everything,” says Al Janahi. “I did not think we would ever see our own films screened like that. The Cultural Foundation loved the idea so much, they sponsored the whole event in 2002. By 2003, the screenings were to full houses.”
A lack of funding and experience meant most budding directors had to stick to short films. Al Janahi made his own first short called Obsession in 2002, followed by On a Road, which won a special jury award in the film competition in 2003, the same year he was married, although he is now divorced.
He wrote The Circle in 2001 but it was another six years before he could even contemplate transforming it into celluloid: “The reality of the UAE back then was not helpful.”
The honour of making the first UAE feature film is often wrongly accorded to Ali Mostafa for City of Life. In fact, the first full-length film from the Emirates was made back in 1989, an Arabic film called Abr Sabeel by Ali Al Abdul, which was followed by The Dream, the first commercially released movie in 2005, but Al Janahi admits releases were few and far between.
With little sponsorship, a limited pool of actors and experienced crew in the Emirates and only a handful of people with enough background in film-making, most would-be directors were forced to fund themselves.
So in 2007, he decided to dip into his own pocket to make The Circle with a crew of about 20. He partnered with a producer from Kuwait, eventually breaking even when the Arabic TV broadcaster MBC bought screening rights.
A gentle, poignant tale of friendship and betrayal – as well as directing, he and Al Jabri played two of the main characters – it was a surprise hit.
“I never thought it would do that well but it went to film festivals beyond the UAE,” says Al Janahi. “By the time I did The Circle, a few feature films had been produced and were out there for the public. There was a need and a hunger.”
Tragically, his father died of lung cancer in 2008 and never got to see his first full-length film.
“He saw my short films,” says Al Janahi. “You never heard him say: ‘I am proud of you’ but you could see it in his smile. You could tell he was happy, even if he did not say it.”
His debut feature brought him to the attention of Image Nation, launched in 2008 by the parent company of The National. Al Janahi was approached and asked if he had another project in mind.
He had already been working with the Ras Al Khaimah-born scriptwriter Mohammed Hassan Ahmed on Sea Shadow, initially intended as a short film, and decided to develop it into a full-length feature.
“We had been planning to produce it on our own,” says Al Janahi. “It had the potential to be a really good feature film.”
Set in an Emirati neighbourhood, or fireej, the film focuses on two 16-year-olds, Mansoor and Kaltham, on a journey of self-discovery as they travel to Abu Dhabi, caught in family conflicts and the flush of first love.
The crew of 90 was considerably larger than Al Jahani had ever managed and only half of the 10 lead and supporting characters could be found in the Emirates. While Omar Al Mulla, who plays Mansoor, is from Sharjah, it was a struggle to find female Emirati actresses so Neven Madi from Syria played Kaltham, with the help of a dialect coach to teach her and the rest of the cast certain Emirati inflections.
“It is always a challenge to find skilled Emirati actors, particularly female ones,” says Al Janahi. “The majority of families feel it is not respectable.
“I had people from all Arabic nationalities on set. There were a few people who worked on previous films but the reality is we do not have enough cast or crew with enough experience in film. I would love to be able to find all the actors I need in the UAE but I cannot.
“The reality is changing though and there is a certain film culture today. It is a slow process but at least it is happening.”
Sea Shadow, which premieres on October 19 before going on general release in November, took 18 months to make from the first casting call to the final edit. What leaps out, says Mohammed Al Otaiba, head of Image Nation Abu Dhabi, is the broader appeal of this rites-of-passage tale.
“It speaks to the minds of youth here but it also touches on universal themes and stories,” he says. “A non-regional audience will also appreciate this story.”
Mohammed Al Mubarak, the chairman of Image Nation, adds it marks an evolution for the company, which has previously co-produced Hollywood box office successes such as The Help, Contagion and the Bollywood hit My Name Is Khan.
“One of our strategies was to start the building blocks of a film industry and to harness film talent in a way that has never been done,” he says.
“The market here is still quite immature and the national film industry is non-existent but there are a lot of great ideas and huge potential. Through our networking we have the right tools to create an awareness and a buzz.”
Next in the pipeline is Djinn, a supernatural thriller directed by Tobe Hooper (see sidebar). Garin says instigating such initiatives on home turf is as important as funding Hollywood blockbusters: “We have a moral obligation to provide young people here with opportunities because if we don’t, they’re not going to lose their passion, we’re going to lose them.
“If we want to help the careers of our young Emiratis, they have to be equipped to work both locally and globally. We see Nawaf as a role model and a mentor to future generations of film-makers. Our programmes have a five-year time horizon and that is the great luxury of being able to work here.”
Sea Shadow will premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Wednesday October 19 at 9.30pm at the Abu Dhabi Theatre.
Djinn due in 2012
Tobe Hooper, the legendary director of the horror classics Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, continues post-production work on the Image Nation film Djinn, which was shot earlier this year on location in Ras Al Khaimah and in a studio in Dubai.
The film, scheduled to be released in January 2012, is set in the UAE in 2015 and tells the story of a couple who return home from America to discover their apartment in a luxury high-rise, built on the site of a deserted fishing village, is home to malevolent beings.
The screenwriter David Tully, who teaches film writing at Dubai’s SAE Institute, says the idea for the story came to him when an Emirati friend took him to the fisherman’s village, knowing that he wrote horror scripts.
“I love discovering new angles and coming to a region and talking about the local stories. Hearing about this, I just found it fascinating, before even thinking about writing something,” Tully told The National last spring.
As for Hooper, he told Rolling Stone magazine in April that Tully’s script was “the best screenplay that I’ve read in many years, and it was much more of what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s more of a metaphysical thriller, laced with extremely good characters”.
There already is talk about a sequel and a prequel.
“The plan behind it is to build up a franchise,” the producer Daniela Tully said during filming. “This is why we have brought in such an acclaimed international director. I truly believe he is someone who can set the benchmark.
“Tobe was definitely top of our list when we sent out the script to Hollywood because he has set trends in the horror genre. He kick-started a new trend where most of the gore takes place in your head without actually showing it.”