Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Power of subtlety
UAE filmmaker Ali F. Mostafa's Under the Sun (Taht El Shams) is one of five films by up-and-coming national filmmakers to be screened at Dubai International Film Festival's UAE-focused programme segment, 'Emerging Emaratis.' Rajeev Nair met him
'Emerging Emarati' filmmaker Ali F. Mostafa discovered the magic of movies when he barely big and old enough to pick up a camera. He shot his toys first, made animation pictures out of them, created characters and situations, and even came up with ingenious special effects using air-sprays and lights.
Those "toy stories" paved the way for Ali discovering his inherent creative strength. That was to make him confident of zooming the camera on to his friends, and the people around him.
His father had a large collection of films, which helped, but Ali had conditioned himself to create a film frame from every walk of life. His eyes were like the camera lenses picking up details, studying them for visual effect and tucking it away in his mind to recall at a later stage.
That later stage has arrived. The present. The now. He has achieved what he dreamt to be: A filmmaker.
And the moment of glory comes as his film, Under the Sun (Taht El Shams) will be screened at the Dubai International Film Festival's 'Emerging Emaratis' programme segment, which showcases five films by up-and-coming UAE filmmakers.
Under the Sun, a 23-minute short, isn't autobiographical, though the film's structure and content might tempt one to draw parallels from Ali's life.
The film's protagonist is a 13-year-old UAE boy, Mohammed, half-English. (And it is played by Mohammed, Ali's younger brother).
Through one day in the life of Mohammed, during the Holy Month of Ramadan, Ali tries to capture "the international perceptions and misconceptions about Islam." Mohammed also stands for the audience's perspective; they both see the world with the same bewildered eyes.
To be in the director's chair has not been an easy journey for Ali. He has hauled tonnes of photography equipment up many flights of stairs; he has clipped films at the editing table; he has scripted stories; worked as sound recordist; played the assistant to director — all at college, his "filmmaking boot camp," the prestigious London Film School, to become what he eventually wanted to be: The director.
It took grit to be there. He had decided to chase his dreams. Straight from school, he chose to be try his hand at interior designer and earned name as an accomplished set and wedding stage designer. But he was sure of his ultimate turf — films — which he spelt out in interviews many years back.
He discovered in the masters programme at London Film School a perfect training ground. "Every term you made a movie, and you learnt everything from scripting to sound recording to holding a camera," Ali recalls.
And at college, while his peers scrambled for the director's chair, he decided to opt to work through the ranks. "Today, I know what every one else would be doing on the sets in detail because that is what I have already done. I know what my crew feels doing a particular task and it helps me help them perform better."
Under the Sun was the graduation film Ali had to do for his masters programme. He had decided to shoot the film in his home country, and he decided to script about what hurt him most: The disturbing portrayal of Muslims and Islam by the media. He called upon the cinematography experience of his Belgian friend Michel Dierickx, who too had graduated from London Film School.
From what should have been a crew of six but now reduced to just the two of them, Ali and Michel went about the film with meticulous precision. Ali had already prepared the storyboard with photographs of virtually all the frames, and Michel agreed with the visual imagery completely.
Ali says that finalising his hero as a 13-year-old and as half-English, was done after careful deliberation. "Children are naive and impressionable, and I wanted to portray what they feel, watching all those unreal messages on television," he says. He also believed that the chances of a Westerner sitting up and taking notice of the film was greater if there was the added element of a Westerner's perspective to the central character.
Being half-British, he agrees there are similarities and even autobiographical moments to the film. "But those are moments every boy in this country goes through," he asserts. Ali tries to bring in a very realistic portrayal of childhood, which he draws from close observation and experience. Some of them could be as simple as the children munching on spicy cheeseballs splashed with laban. "That is done a lot in the schools," smiles Ali.
Choosing one day as the thematic length of the film suited its "short" segment, feels Ali. "That was how it came to me. It was about Mohammed meeting all these characters through the day; it could easily happen to any young boy."
Ali says directing his brother was natural and effortless. He was, in fact, part of all the short films Ali had made earlier, and they shared a rapport. "I was confident he could do it, and I didn't really have to direct him much. He is 14, plays a 13-year-old but has the mind of a 30-year-old. He understood the underlying currents of the story, and he got it right on the first take, all the time."
Ali had to use only seven rolls of film; his maximum takes were just three. That was the sort of rapport he elicited from his cast.
Ali recalls watching the impressive performance of Keisha Castle-Hughes (who at 13, was the youngest ever to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar) in Whale Rider. It was the same subtlety he sought in Mohammed too. "I believe that acting is not over-acting or over-reacting," says Ali.
Ali says filming Under the Sun was helped by his own unique perspective: of being able to watch things from two angles. "The story meant a lot to me, and I wanted to send across my film's message out there. I wanted people to see it."
He has submitted the film to other film festivals too, and is waiting to hear from about 15 film festivals around the world. That confidence also comes from the overwhelming response he got to his film's screening in London.
Ali is awed by the phenomenal interest in filmmaking in the UAE, right now. His only advice to the youngsters who dream of a film career is to be at film sets, if they do not have the financial resources to go into a film school. To be at the sets also means being part of the team, doing the odd tasks, learning the craft, the hard way.
But the current enthusiasm in filmmaking in the UAE, triggered also thanks to Dubai International Film Festival, will translate into tangible results, says Ali. "In two years time, you can watch Emarati films at the local theatres — not one or two but five..."
Ali does not restrict his inspiration to a few select directors. "Every thing influence me, maybe because I watch films differently..."
Personally, he will continue to be in films, doing commercials, corporate videos, whatever it takes to establish himself as a filmmaker. And whatever he does, he says, will bear his stamp of creativity and quality.
And his dream is to win an Oscar award before he is 35 years old.
That is about ten years away... but Ali knows he is on his way.
Under the Sun: Cast and crew
Cast: Mohammed Mostafa, Amina Nolan, Abdullah Al Sayegh, Saif Al Deen, Marwan Al Sabri, Mohammed Al Haj, Mohammed and Sami Zeidan
Writer: Ali F. Mostafa
Music: Kunal Soonderji, T-1 Creative
Cinematographer: Michel Dierickx
Editor: Ahmed Abdulqader
Sound recordist: Ron Bagnulo
Producers: KHalid Al Awar and Ali F Mostafa
Director: Ali F. Mostafa
Emerging Emaratis to be Diff regular
Emerging Emaratis, which puts UAE filmmakers on the spotlight, will become a regular fixture at Dubai International Film Festival. This year, the segment will feature five films by national filmmakers.
"We feel very strongly about backing up our words with actions. We have said that our goal is for Diff to be the world's destination for discovering new and interesting Arab cinema, and this new section is part of that high-level strategic goal," says Neil Stephenson, CEO and director, Diff.
Masoud Amralla Al Ali, director of the annual Emirates Film Competition and programmer of the section, says the decision to give space to young national filmmakers marks a key step in the development of cinema in the Emirates. "The cinema movement in the UAE is still very young but this decision will go a long way in its long-term development," he adds.
The five short films selected for this year's Emerging Emaratis programme are:
An Ordinary Day (Youm Aadi): A film about the capricious nature of creativity. It won its director Omar Ibrahim the Diff Award for Exceptional Talent in Filmmaking at the 2005 edition of the Emirates Film Competition.
Under the Sun (Taht El Shams): Ali F. Mostafa's film delves into a 13-year-old boys' experiences of practising Islam in a modern city.
Amen (Ameen): Director Abdullah Hassan Ahmed's social film about the fractured relationship between a father and son, and the son's love for a disabled girl.
Dying for Fun (Al Maout Lel Mota'a): An acclaimed film from director Nada Mohammed Al Karimi and one that has already played to rave reviews in a Lebanon documentary film festival. It follows the story of dyed chicks from the time they are hatched and coloured to their arrival and premature death in family homes.
Hoboob: An inventive short film directed by Saeed Salmeen Al-Murry, it is based on a traditional folk tale and tells the story of a young citizen who tries to dig a well in a remote village.
The second Dubai International Film Festival will be held between Dec. 11 and 17, 2005, and will feature approximately 85 films including features, retrospectives and short films.
When cinema binds
One of the most encouraging responses to the first edition of the Dubai International Film Festival was the cross-cultural bonding it facilitated, says Shivani Pandya, executive director, Festival Operations. Rajeev Nair met her
In the run-up to the second edition of the Dubai International Film Festival, Shivani Pandya, executive director of Festival Operations, has more than a fair share of challenges.
The toughest part, she says, would be "meeting the expectations of people, and making sure that the hard work put in, manifests into the benefit of the audience."
Her responsibilities include "programme admin" which covers setting up the industry network, marketing, project planning and co-ordinating the technical aspects. She speaks about the preparations currently underway for Diff 2005. Excerpts:
How do you look back on Diff 2004? What are the lessons learnt, and how does the experience help in planning for Diff 2005?
Last year, we worked out the concept of the film festival we had in our mind. And for an initial event, we were able to get most of the elements in place. We have learnt in many areas; we know what works for Dubai, and how the audience reacts to our different segments.
How would you describe the Dubai audience for Diff?
Dubai has a very good film-going audience, and the fact that we could get films that they haven't seen before worked well for us last year. The audience is indeed a cultural mix with so many different nationalities appreciating not just their films but others' too. There was a good cross-cultural mix in the audience; people are open to looking at films from other cultures and that was very nice.
Do you therefore see Diff as a platform for a true cross-over culture in film appreciation?
I think we are headed there. Foreign films are rather new to Dubai but with Diff 2004, we could elicit a good cross-cultural responses to the films. Khamosh Pani, a Pakistani film, for instance, fetched a diverse audience. That is a trend we saw across the board.
What according to you is the unique identity of Diff?
We are not looking at Diff as a festival for the industry (like Cannes) because we don't have a local industry. But we are focused on two targets: The local community, who appreciate films; and the film fraternity — local, regional and international. Through this multicultural event, we are looking at setting up a industry. We are trying to showcase Dubai as a destination for films, and it is happening.
Have you seen tangible results?
Arab films screened at Diff were showcased at Miami Festival because its festival director was here. There were other films that evoked interest in distributors. Yes, the results have been small but they have started to show, which is very encouraging. It makes us realise that we are on the right track and we have to build on it.
The Cairo Film Festival closes on Dec. 9. Diff opens on Dec. 11. Will there be an overlapping of interests?
I feel it is good that these events are close, and even if there is a slight overlapping, it is not a big deal because the audiences are very different. And the industry..., they travel across the world. For many international artistes, the close dates also help plan their itinerary. In fact, we have a few big celebrities doing both Cairo and Dubai.
Which are the new markets that Diff reaches out to this year?
We have segmented audiences in terms of the region and sub-continent; and international. What we are trying to do is create awareness, by and large. We have been able to do so by participating at international film festivals (this year at Cannes), and advertising in trade. We have collaborated with many festivals around the world.
Is the logistics involved similar to Diff 2004?
It could be very similar. We had some 350 people working towards the last three months of the festival on Diff 2004. The core team comprises 10 to 15 people who work round the year; a lot more would come in six months onwards. This year, the theatre venues are Madinat Jumeirah, Mall of the Emirates, Knowledge Village and the DMC Amphitheatre. We have made it more convenient for audiences this year in terms of accessibility. Based on the feedback we received last year, we are asking the filmmakers to increase the screenings to two. We will have on-line ticket sales and shuttle services — on the whole, we are looking at making it more user-friendly.
Frames from the streets
The Unknown, a documentary on street children and women in an Indian city, conceptualised by Gireesh Nair, a UAE-based television professional, has been short-listed in competition at the Vancouver International Film Festival. Rajeev Nair has the details
On the pavement by a bustling street, a child turns on its paper-cot — a poster torn out from the wayside wall. The tiny tot studies the prints on its 'bedding' as flies buzz over him, and then, abruptly, he sinks his head down. It hurts. He cries. The vision freezes on the boy's pain.
Same city, another pavement. An old woman in rags reaches out her hand to passers-by. They are busy – laughing and talking, they walk past briskly. As the camera pans on the woman's nonchalant expression, the pavement senses the flurry of a rustle. It is a woman draped in a fancy silk sari. She clutches a big bag closer and walks away. The camera moves back to the old lady, and settles on her hand — it doesn't have a palm.
Children and women — all from the streets of Kochi, a city in the south Indian state of Kerala — are the subjects of The Unknown, a 17-minute documentary. Filmed by Gireesh Nair, a UAE-based television professional during his annual vacation back home, the documentary has been short-listed in the competition section at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
The Unknown dwells on unknown faces, alright. But in its totality, the documentary is about people you know, people you see but do not watch, people you hear but do not listen to, people you sense but do not feel for. They are known, yes, but best left forgotten. And it is this raw nerve that Gireesh pricks with his documentary.
Not surprisingly, The Unknown does not have words. Except for three narrative breaks, the documentary does not rely on the spoken word. Music, culled from selections by the masters, underscore the mood of the production but it is the camera that does the talking.
Despite the lack of words, the vocabulary that the frames throw up is tremendously rich. There is every emotion in these 17 minutes: Anguish, frustration, sadness, despair, nonchalance, resignation... and then, a little hope.
That is what you want to read on the faces of those children, wide awake on the shoulders of their mothers (or total strangers), as they watch the city go past them.
In their life is the constant backdrop of traffic, speeding buses, chugging trains, huge billboards that mean nothing to them, and people — countless faces who are on the move, always on a journey, to a destination. And what is theirs? One street to another? One shop to the other? One hand of charity to the next?
The Unknown is brutally honest. It pinches where it hurts. It is a painful reality we are happy to forget, and Gireesh and his crew simply dig them out and lay them bare, without preaching, without holier-than-thou pomposity.
It all started with Gireesh attempting to make a television piece for Sakhi, a home for distressed women in Kochi, initiated by the Cultural Foundation for Peace. Ann Sharon Lopez, the organizer of Sakhi, had suggested doing the shoot.
But once Gireesh studied the subject at hand, and decided to use candid shots for the production from the streets (and also to protect the identity of the women who were given shelter at Sakhi), the scope widened.
The Unknown, eventually, had little to with Sakhi. At no point, does the documentary try to endorse Sakhi. The Unknown is just facts based on actual people on the streets, and nothing more.
Gireesh and his camera man, Nithin Thalikulam, shot The Unknown with a hand-held DSR370, at different locations in Kochi. They had no story-board, no sequence of events, not even expectations of what to be shot. It was as candid as it could get.
They had their little brushes with trouble too. Once, at a railway station, a few women threw stones at them. At another time, women who also sold flowers while their little ones slept and played by the roadside were annoyed and raised a ruckus. But these were minor and forgettable episodes, says Gireesh.
From a footage that ran to over two hours, shot and mixed over ten days, he eventually culled the documentary to 17 minutes, also adding observations by social worker Justice VR Krishna Iyer, Ernakulam District Collector APM Mohammed Hanish and journalist Leela Menon.
The documentary was screened to encouraging response by Sakhi in Kochi, recently. And now comes the honour of being screened at Vancouver...
Gireesh, who works with an Arabic channel in Dubai, has previously assisted accomplished cinematographers including Rajeev Menon (on the feature film Minsara Kanavu) and Madhu Ambat (on the Kerala shoot of Raj Kumar Santhoshi's Lajja).He has also worked with cinematographers Sunny Joseph and KG Jayan, and film director PN Menon. He started his career in advertising in Mumbai, before moving to television. More productions for television, and eventually, films form his dreams.
The Unknown, he says, was a moving experience, personally. "To take the camera to the street, and watch things that were always there, but see it in a new light, was a different experience."
It is that difference, which he communicates through The Unknown — a no-frills take on reality.