x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sentimental education

After a lifetime of film appreciation, Mohammad Khawaja gets behind the camera.

I was born in 1982. Abu Dhabi had no multiplexes, no Virgin megastore and no cable television (thus no Turner Classic Movies). To watch movies, I could go with my mother to the Cultural Foundation (where I saw my first Satyajit Ray film), or walk with my brother and father to Al Mansoor Video, the only place that rented English-language films like The Shawshank Redemption and cartoons like Tom and Jerry and The Pink Panther. There was no copyright regulation back then, so Al Mansoor carried bootleg copies of variable quality (all proudly fronted by a "Al Mansoor presents" logo), which we in turn copied to build our home library.

My family watched Charlie Chaplin's 1928 masterpiece The Circus over and over again, often during lunch. It never mattered what sort of mood my parents, brothers or I were in before we sat down. The moment one of us pressed "play", we forgot everything and became transfixed by Chaplin's attempts to evade the police officer chasing him for stealing from the circus. The gags made us giggle and laugh so much that it was hard to finish eating. But we did more than laugh. The Circus speaks to anyone who - like my parents, immigrants from India - has ever felt like an outsider, or has felt sharp pangs of hunger but been unwilling to beg for food, or has done something for love regardless of the consequences. Chaplin helped connect my brother and I to this part of our parents' life; I'll never forget how close we felt.

As I grew older, my interest in film never faded. For 11 years, I attended the American Community School, which had a large video collection imported directly from the US. It was reserved exclusively for teachers to use in classes, but I found a friend in Carolyn Hackworth, the school librarian, who let me use the viewing room during lunch breaks and after school to watch (plus rewind, rewatch, and freeze-frame) the best of American cinema: In The Heat of the Night, The Maltese Falcon, Rebel Without a Cause, The Red Badge of Courage, Taxi Driver.

I attended Islamic studies classes every day after school, but for one reason or another they failed to move me in any sort of personal way. It was not until my Arabic teacher showed me The Message (also known as Mohammed, Messenger of God), Moustapha Akkad's Hollywood-sized telling of the story of the Prophet, that I finally began to understood what it might mean for a Muslim to bind with God. Akkad's cinematic storytelling techniques immersed me in a narrative of sacrifice and struggle that enthrals me to this day. Now I've read the Prophet's biography several times, listened to tapes about his life and attended countless lectures and sermons about his work.

At some point, I started thinking about making films. Chaplin had been a friend to my family, and Akkad had given me spiritual inspiration - plus helped the West to better understand Islam. What if I could do similar things for others? However, back then Abu Dhabi did not have much appreciation for the art of cinema, or really any film culture at all. Sometimes an embassy would screen a foreign masterpiece, and the Al Jazira club showed subcontinental films now and then, but that was it. We certainly had nothing resembling a filmmaking community. I realised that, since I wanted to live near my family, I would not be able to work in film for a living. A career in film history, preservation and archiving was equally out of the question: we had no film history to preserve or archive! So, when it was time for me to start university, I headed to the University of Tulsa, in Oklahoma, to study environmental policy.

I was, however, able to minor in film studies, and spent many hours at Circle Cinema, Tulsa's local art house theatre. It was there that I first saw a 35mm restored print of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, which remains one of my favourite films (in large part because of Giulietta Masina's heartfelt performance as Cabiria). I eventually befriended the projectionist, Greg, and spent many hours in his booth learning the basic mechanics of a projector, how to handle film and how to compile film reels for screenings. In my film classes, I scratched down notes on lighting, cutting and camera movement. I devoured film theory and spent hours thinking about why certain close-ups were imprinted in my memory and others weren't. Even though I'd mostly given up on making movies, I was still fascinated with the techniques master filmmakers use to channel their outlooks on life into coherent cinematic narratives, which go on to prompt their audiences to probe, reflect on and develop their own beliefs. Like religion, cinema helps hone our sense of what it means to be alive in the world.

Last year, I graduated and returned to Abu Dhabi. I was half-heartedly preparing to apply to MBA programs when my brother showed me an newspaper advertisement for the New York Film Academy, which was about to open a new campus in Abu Dhabi. After researching the program, I decided to attend, and I've just completed my first term. I've now shot directly to celluloid, and can report that it's beautiful. I've studied storytelling, image composition and different approaches to acting and editing. Every morning, I arrived early to watch a film from the academy's library: Renoir's The River, Herzog's Land of Silence and Darkness, Hawks's Bringing up Baby and Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers. Every weekend, I went out with my fellow students and we shot each other's projects. I have a lot to learn, but I've started now.

Like the Quran, films relate stories that help us understand human desire and fear. Now I am starting to be able to produce such stories on my own. I'm excited and grateful. Whenever I visit a movie theatre (we have many now), I make sure to look around and watch my fellow moviegoers closely as the lights dim. Everyone settles in their seats, then gradually gets enveloped in darkness. We can only see each other from the light of the screen. Looking forward at the same story, we are bound together even as we remain distant, lost in gazing deep inside ourselves.

Mohammad Mustafa Khawaja is a student at the New York Film Academy's Abu Dhabi campus.