x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Short stories from film's new voices

New film makers end intensive course, the New Voices Documentary Programme, with three minute films about life in Abu Dhabi.

Doaa Agrama's In the Ladies Room (below) is a moving portrait of an Ethiopian woman who cleaned toilets in Abu Dhabi while studying for her high school diploma.
Doaa Agrama's In the Ladies Room (below) is a moving portrait of an Ethiopian woman who cleaned toilets in Abu Dhabi while studying for her high school diploma.

The brief was simple: tell a story about the city of Abu Dhabi in three minutes. Eight participants in the New Voices Documentary Programme, a scheme run by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC) for emerging filmmakers, screened the results at the Abu Dhabi Film Centre on Sunday. The three-minute documentaries had been made as part of a three-week intensive mentoring programme led by a group of documentary filmmakers from the UK, who guided their students through the processes of storytelling, camera work, production and editing, before their final task: to produce a documentary in four days.

Over the course of the screening, there were stories of a 17-year-old Emirati break-dancer, a team of Pakistani barbers, a group of young Emirati men who love to speed race and an Ethiopian woman who cleans toilets while studying for her high school diploma. These were all recognisable facets of life here, represented, for the most part, as thoughtful, funny and moving accounts. Particularly impressive was Rola Shamas's Of Fish and Men, a portrayal of the gregarious fishermen at the Abu Dhabi Fish Market, who start their day before dawn and for whom plans for a shopping mall threaten their existence. "The fish market is going to go," says Shamas from Lebanon, "but I tried not to make it a grim ending because he's hoping, as we all do, that if we move on it's to something better."

Some, such as Olga Sapozhnikova's Abu Dhabi Beauty, which looked at the city's burgeoning beauty industry, and Sameer al Jaberi's account of "Breakstein", the young Emirati break-dancer who hones his skills on the city's Corniche, were light-hearted takes on contemporary society. While others, such as Alya al Habashi's Eda'aaas! provided a more pointed commentary, in this case on young Emirati men's predilection for speed. "I didn't want to make it preachy," she said of her piece, which contrasted those men who speed for a living - the V8 Supercars competitors who raced at Yas Marina Circuit last month - with the young men who choose to do it on the city's streets. "I just wanted to take it from both sides and it's up to the viewer to decide."

Perhaps the most moving was Doaa Agrama's In the Ladies Room, the story of an Ethiopian woman, a good student who, after the death of her mother, dropped out of school early and moved to Abu Dhabi, where she was only qualified to clean the toilets. "This lady was working in the bathroom at the National Theatre, where we used to take her classes," says Agrama, from Egypt, who has previously worked as an assistant director as well as made two short documentaries. "Many people just came and went and didn't notice her, but she caught my eye because she was studying. I wanted to make the point that just because someone is working a simple job, we are not necessarily better than them. They could have done well, but something happened to them."

All the programme's participants agreed that the skills they learnt during the course were invaluable. "I have been in broadcast media for seven years," says Amna Ehtesham from Pakistan, whose Touch Wood told the story of a Pakistani carpenter who arrived in Abu Dhabi 35 years ago, "but was learning through experience. There was no formal training for people like me. It has been a complete reincarnation. It was a billion-dollar training that we got purely on merit."

The three-minute documentaries are far from the end of the road, though. The group have all since pitched ideas for a 30-minute documentary, four of which, by Farazdak al Kaabi, Amna Ehtesham Shahid, Shamas and Natalie al Shami, have been picked for production. They will work in pairs and be mentored by practising filmmakers. "We're trying to bring them up to a standard of production so that they can make connections in the industry, have a broadcast credit and then hopefully stay in the UAE and do more production here," says Gregory Unrau, the head of production and training at ADFC.

The programme is in partnership with Bainuna, a new television channel, to be broadcast in both English and Arabic, that will be launched by Adach later this year. "We aim to link new filmmakers into that new future employer," says David Shepheard, the director of ADFC, "by teaching people how to be filmmakers, increasing their experience and giving them broadcast credits. If you want to call yourself a filmmaker in the future, then this the life you have to go through."

A selection of the New Voices three-minute documentaries are available to view at www.film.gov.ae