x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

My Life: Fatima Al Shamsi on the role of films in life

Hopes, dreams, values, customs - all are caught in the klieg light that films shine on society.

The earliest films I remember seeing were Cool Runnings, The Addams Family and The Lion King. It wasn't just the films themselves that remained in my mind as a child but the whole experience. Although I'm sure it's exaggerated in my childhood memories, I could have sworn that the screen was the size of a cruise ship and the theatre the size of a stadium. Ever since then I have had an obsession with cinema and storytelling.

Just like books, films tell a story. They portray a world we can relate to or escape to. They also provide an outlet for emotions that many times we don't have in real life. We never experience an alien invasion, a zombie apocalypse or Bruce Willis heroics to save the world while he's hanging off a helicopter/train/bus. But films also let us dream. Impossible love stories always work out, hard work and determination eventually bring success and the bad guy always dies (unless he's coming back indefinitely in a slew of subpar sequels).

As a teenager I went to films at least once or twice a week: Friday after school with my friends and Sunday evenings with my parents. Fridays I got to pick my preference, but with Mama and Baba it was either a romantic comedy or an action-packed crime story. There was a time when I was pretty much watching everything Hollywood was producing. When I finally realised that I didn't have the time or the allowance to maintain this habit, I gave up Hollywood films for those with smaller budgets, because big explosions and flashy wardrobes don't invoke real sentiment the way good cinematography and a great script do.

While I like to deride Hollywood for stories that tend to be superficial, predictable and filled with way too many good-looking people, I still do take occasional refuge in them. I feel sometimes that societal norms allow only a small range of what is acceptable in terms of emotions and actions, and that grand gestures are just something reserved for films. But the idealist in me says, why shouldn't we get inspired to go out on a limb and fight for love or justice?

But more than just stories, films grant access to a society's culture. Fashion and beauty icons are born this way, and the far-reaching scope of American cinema makes it one of the ways in which US culture is propagated internationally. Films almost always seem to be set in New York or Los Angeles, and when people ask me whether living in New York is just like it is in films, my answer is, it depends on the film.

I also watched Hindi and Urdu films as I was growing up, and they left me thinking that a hundred-person choreographed song-and-dance routine could erupt in the midst of an ordinary discussion. While this doesn't reflect real life, Indian values and customs emerge through these films by way of some of the more obvious superficial cultural markers, such as music and costume.

I'd love some day for Emirati films to be available internationally to shed light on issues relevant to the UAE. Only through exposure can people from around the world better understand and communicate with each other, and films can be just as powerful a tool as news articles. The Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the Dubai International Film Festival are a great way to showcase Arabic films, as well as to support the industry as a whole.

Some of my favourite Arabic films come from 1950s and 1960s Egypt, with stars such as Omar Sharif, Abdel Halim Hafez and Faten Hamama epitomising the age of glamour in Egyptian cinema.

I'd like one day to be able to add a list of Emirati films to my favourites.

 

Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati based in New York.