Since releasing Teta, Alf Marra (Grandma, a Thousand Times) last October, it’s been a very busy year for 32-year-old Mahmoud Kaabour. In just 12 months, the UAE-based Lebanese filmmaker has visited 28 cities in every corner of the world with the documentary film. At 50 minutes long, the film is his first feature-length effort and follows his 2004 debut short, Being Osama. With Grandma beginning a two-week run at The Picturehouse from this Thursday October 27 – the first time the film has been screened for the public in the region – we caught up with the writer and director to find out why this project really was a labour of love.
Tell us a bit about the story behind this documentary.
One day, as I was leaving Beirut for Canada, I was in my grandparents’ room and I found a cassette, and later discovered that my late grandfather [with whom Mahmoud shares his full name] had recorded violin improvisations in his bedroom on it. For seven years while living abroad I was listening to his music non-stop, and I felt an affinity to it. My idea was to go back to Lebanon and see my grandmother – a feisty, foul-mouthed woman, full of character – and play her the music of her husband, and get her to tell me stories of him. It was extremely emotional, hearing someone who has been dead for 20 years, and she started drawing this wonderful portrait of my grandfather, but by doing so she also got to show us her own larger-than-life character, and we got to see what it’s like to be her – 84, widowed, living in a huge flat on her own and missing that man too much.
You’ve won awards at festivals including the audience award at Doha Tribeca. How has that felt?
To me the real prize was coming back from Canada and getting to this film in time, before my grandmother passed away. To be able to express my love for her and my appreciation of the culture she embodies before she parts this world was a labour of love.
How did she react when she saw the film?
She didn’t quite grasp it as we were making it, there are instances in the film where she doesn’t realise we’re taping. At one point she’s dissing my fiancée on screen, so there are a few quirky moments. But when I convinced her to get on a plane and we got to the world premiere in Doha, she was like ‘What did we just do together?’ and slowly she started to understand the impact the film was having on audiences there, and later at other festivals. She became an embodiment of grandmothers to Arab people; they have a unique authority, they cook recipes that mothers don’t know, and they’re special. Since then, I’d say she’s become a diva!
What are you hoping will come from the film’s two-week run at The Picturehouse?
I want to find out to what extent audiences here might be moved by an Arab story the way they are by watching a sad film straight out of Hollywood. I want to see if our stories mean as much to us as stories from other countries.
Will you be sitting in the audience during screenings here?
Yes, I’ll buy tickets in advance and see how it does here. The most rewarding thing is to see how the tears and laughter come out at the same sections of the film all over the world. There’s something about the film that travels so comfortably across cultures. She’s a killer character.
What is next for you?
We’re releasing the soundtrack to the film – which is my grandfather’s music remastered – in November with Virgin Megastore. I’m looking into beginning production on my next film next summer. It’s a Dubai-Abu Dhabi-based documentary called Champ of the Camp, in which I’m going to follow four contestants in a Bollywood singing competition that takes place in the UAE’s labour camps. All the singers are labourers by day and singers by night. I can’t wait for that.
Grandma, a Thousand Times is showing now at The Picturehouse at Reel Cinemas, The Dubai Mall.
Guest editor Kim Kardashian’s tip: ‘My favourite film is The Notebook. I cried so much. It was the best.’