By Jason Keller
In the last 10 years, the Middle East has become a recognized hot spot-for critically acclaimed and boundary-pushing cinema.
Such directors as Iranian-born Abbas Kiarostami (Ten, Wind Will Carry Us) and Israel’s Amos Gitai (Kippur, Kadosh) have captured the world’s attention with powerful and humanist stories told with subtle narratives and plenty of visual imagination.
However, there’s one country that, although similar in region, is not typically associated with Middle Eastern cinema: The United Arab Emirates.
But newly-recognized filmmaker, U.A.E. native and current Ryerson student Nayla Al Khaja wants that to change.
“Everyone thinks the Middle East is, like, three countries, but there are 23,” says Al Khaja with a hint of frustration. “Everyone’s images these days have been shaped by the media, but it’s our own fault because we don’t show enough images of ourselves. Not all these places are war-torn. In fact, Dubai is a very modern and high-tech place,” she says.
Al Khaja’s debut film, Unveiling Dubai, is a story about a German tourist (Nicolas Doldinger) discovering the essence of Dubai through a hospitable tour guide played by Al Khaja.
Filled with lush images of Dubai city and country-side (filmed by director of photography Daniel Grant), the film attempts to break down cultural myths and stereotypes.
Doldinger recalls some off-camera moments with his director: “Nayla provided me with a great amount of local knowledge that made it easier for me to figure out what was needed from my part to make the documentary as provoking as possible. “Nayla was extremely brave to take on such an adventure, considering the lack of professional crew and funding, and the simple trust in me to lead the story, which I myself wasn’t too sure of,” Doldinger says.
Al Khaja says the lack of awareness about her country’s culture and history can be attributed mostly to the U.A.E.’s lack of self-exposure. Unveiling Dubai is the first independent film ever produced in the U.A.E. and Al Khaja the country’s first female filmmaker.
For a country that’s only 40 years old (and a capital city, Dubai, that is only 15), that’s not entirely surprising. The concept of a film industry and the subsequent cultural and economic benefits are things Al Khaja hopes will come in time. Grant says working in a country that is new to such an industry can make filmmaking trying.
“It was difficult because of the limited access to equipment, production and technicians there. I know Nayla had a lot of problems when it came to getting access to locations because people didn’t know what she was doing and why. “There were a lot of hurdles, but she was passionate about the idea and wanted to do justice to the film.”
The desert may be barren, but Al Khaja has planted some seeds. Her newly-formed production company, Dessart Productions, aims to nurture her country’s cinematic infancy.
“Everything in Dubai is very modern, new and wealthy,” Al Khaja says. “But even when I tried to solicit corporate funding, (Saudis) didn’t understand why Dubai would even need exposure. I had to run around like a crazy woman trying to secure financing, but once they saw (the final product), the reactions were very positive,” she says. “In fact, (the minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research and chancellor of Higher Colleges of Technology) is so happy, he wants us to make a documentary about the King.
“So I said, ‘Hell yes.'”