Back in 1999, when the UAE’s film industry was still in its early stages of development, Nujoom AlGhanem (above) became one of the first Emirati directors to make a mark overseas when her first documentary, Between Two Banks, was screened at several film festivals across the world. Today she is still one of the country’s most distinguished filmmakers: her 2010 film, Hamama, picked up five international awards. Last year’s Amal, a moving documentary portrait of a Syrian actress who moves to the UAE and tries to adapt, has just picked up its second prize.
After winning the coveted Muhr Emirati Competition at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival, AlGhanem was the only feature-length director to be honoured at last month’s Gulf Film Festival, where Amal picked up second prize in the Best Feature awards. What better time, then, to find out what makes the 49-year-old poet-turned-director tick.
How do you feel about winning the latest award?
I’m quite happy, I’m quite touched, and quite proud… but it does bring more responsibility. I’m very serious about my work. I always stand on my toes when I work. When you win an award, of course it makes me happy, but it also makes me worry. I worry what I’m going to do next. I worry about the responsibility. People start expecting to see better, better, better. This puts a lot of pressure on me.
Why has Amal touched so many people?
It speaks about so many people, so many expatriates who go through the same process [as Amal’s protagonist], who lose their own country to go to a new place for a new opportunity. When people are established in their own country then they leave and go to a new country, they have to prove themselves, do double to be recognised. They might get lost in the middle, might get suffocated because of the country, because of the situation. The film discusses these feelings and the impact on the individual as an expat.
Where did the idea come from?
From my own experience. I travelled and lived abroad when I was old enough and mature enough. I studied radio production at Ohio University in the US and I went through these experiences myself. I met Amal and she had similar feelings – she’d come to Dubai from Syria to work for one of the TV channels. We thought we were going to make a drama, a fiction; we spent more than a year writing a script, but when the camera started running I felt her life itself was full of drama.
Which of your films are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of Between Two Banks. It was the first film to put me on track for documentary filmmaking. It was about an extraordinary person who passed away two months after I finished filming – but he never saw the film. It hasn’t been complete for all these years because he never saw it.
Can you tell us about your next film project?
I’m making a film about an artist – painter Najat Makki. She’s under similar pressures [to me]. She’s quite an accomplished artist, the first formal artist in the UAE. Everybody knows about her work, but no one knows about her personal life. They only know this Emirati woman who comes out in public every now and again. I still think she’s mysterious, even though I’m making the film.
Would you let someone make a film about you?
No, no way. Not now. I haven’t done enough to deserve it.
What do you think of the UAE film industry today?
It’s quite challenging to make pictures: you always need to work hard to achieve a small result, which doesn’t happen in other places. I worked in the US and Australia and it’s so easy to go into film production there. Here the business environment is not quite ready – if you’re producing a documentary, there’s no infrastructure. TV channels are not interested in buying our films, movie theatres are not interested in showing documentaries, the only outlet is film festivals – and even at film festivals there are not many feature documentaries. We need more awareness, more openness, and lots of fairness and trust. TV channels must learn to trust Emirati filmmakers, look at their work and value it. We need more investors to support feature films. The investors are all for short films, but there are more nerves over [supporting] feature films.
Watch clips of AlGhanem’s work at www.youtube.com/nujoom7