x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Through child's eyes, director shows UAE's dizzying transformation

The lone feature-length film from the UAE at the Middle East International Film Festival, Henna, is set before the discovery of oil changed the country's economic landscape.

Saleh Karama's <i>'Henna'</i> is the sole feature-length submission by an Emirati to the Middle East International Film Festival.
Saleh Karama's 'Henna' is the sole feature-length submission by an Emirati to the Middle East International Film Festival.

ABU DHABI // The lone feature-length film from the UAE in competition at the Middle East International Film Festival, Henna, is set before the discovery of oil changed the country's economic landscape forever. The director, Saleh Karama, was born and raised in Abu Dhabi. His film, which premiered last night, is the first feature from the UAE to compete at the festival. It is a moving portrayal of life before the country was fast-tracked into the 20th century.

Set in a Bedouin community, the story is told from the perspective of the title character. Henna is the daughter of a woman divorced by her husband because she has epilepsy, an illness that has historically been viewed as a curse. Mr Karama's film touches on other parts of UAE history, including poverty and the dangers that faced fishermen, who would leave their families for weeks or months. In the story, Henna desperately seeks a new father figure. She is also transfixed by her first experiences at a shopping mall and in a lift.

"I want people to see how life changed, how construction, money, malls and buildings have come and changed life here," said Mr Karama. "Henna represents something pure." Karama, who first wrote Henna as a novel called Henna's Dream, said the film challenges people to consider how complicated modern life has become in the Emirates. "Now, people need or want new things, cars, villas," he said. "Every day, life is like running on a treadmill, round and round. I think people do miss the old way of life. Life now has become artificial. You can make the desert in your home if you want to."

Mr Karama said it was vital that films from the UAE reflected reality. "It's important to make films look at normal things, problems, social issues, how life has become expensive and how in general, our lives have changed." For those trying to make films in the UAE's budding industry, the issue of censorship remains. "We're still unsure about censorship here, but we can't say it's a problem, although we can't say it's not," he said. "We're still testing out what we can and can't do."

He praised the quality of short film-making in the Emirates and suggested that movies could be marketed better. mswan@thenational.ae