UAE director Waleed Al Shehhi

Filmmaker talks about his first feature film, Dolphins


In a film marketplace where Hollywood action movies dominate screenings and the arthouse film scene is marginal, films that offer audiences a different way of telling stories can be ignored by cinemas and viewers alike. But, Waleed Al Shehhi’s Dolphins, which has just been given general release in Vox Cinemas, may offer an alternative.

At the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival, Al Sehhi scooped the IWC Filmmaker Award, a fund award for directors from the Gulf region, and won Dhs367,000 to get his film off the ground. One year later, the director from Ras Al Khaimah hosted the world premiere of his debut feature film Dolphins at the 11th edition of DIFF, a film that he directed, produced and edited. Dolphins is a sobering film, starring a cast of actors from around the Gulf region including Ahmed Al Jarn as Saud, a young boy caught in the middle of his parents’ divorce, and Ibrahim Al Mansoori as Hilal, Saud’s best friend. Dolphins highlights issues of family breakdown and separation and was shot along the coastline of RAK.

What was your inspiration?
It is a story that you see everywhere – in my life, in everybody’s life. We tried to be simple in telling the story and at the same time, when we decided to make this film a feature film we were going to the actual locations in Ras Al Khaimah and trying to get some inspiration out of that local environment and the people. Some of the characters we developed, we just saw walking on the beach.

This was your first feature film, how did you find the stress?
It was very tiring and we were on a tight budget. You have to find the location, get the set ready, and all the contacts, producers, editing and at the end the learning that came out of this film was really great, because I know what to do for my second feature. People can explain the filmmaking process to you, but you never fully understand until you go through it.

How has the film been received by Emirati viewers so far?
Some of them loved it, and some of them are not used to seeing these kinds of slow films, but this is the way I make films. My short films were always very slow, but I’m not going to change my style. This is an artistic reflection of what’s inside me and I will keep doing it. I think people who don’t like this style will not like it whatever you do, and I respect that. They might adapt to this style of filmmaking because I think this a learning process and a different school of cinema here in the UAE market and among Emirati filmmakers.

What was the biggest challenge on set?
The scene on the sea, with the fridge. It was really difficult, we had to deal with waves and the weather. If I had the time and the money I think I would have done it in a different way. We shot it in four days, but if I had the flexibility, I would make it ten days to finish the scene and build the set differently, but I’m satisfied with what we got.

What’s your take on indie film in the UAE?
Well, Abu Dhabi Film Festival has closed, Gulf Film Festival is gone, we only have DIFF and a small film festival in Sharjah for kids, and this is so bad. Not just the film festivals but the entire film industry is going down. No-one is making films anymore, even short films.

Do you think something will fill the gap of the ADFF to fund and showcase local films?
The thing is that the funding is there, but the problem is that people are not interested. Even students, they make a lot of films, but as soon as they graduate and have jobs outside of cinema, then that’s it.

What’s the biggest thing you learnt from making this film?
To make films that look like us, speak like us and represent us as Emiratis. And don’t ever try to make compromises to make your film acceptable in commercial theatres. No, just make a film that reflects whatever is inside you, and if people don’t like it here, someone in this world will like it. This is a belief I will never forget or ignore.

What’s next for you?
I am working on a stop motion puppet animation, which will be a new direction for me. I’ll be doing everything on the production again, and learning how to make all the puppets. As for a feature film, I’ll be taking a big, deep breath before I start doing that.
Dolphins is out in Vox Cinemas across Dubai from Thursday June 18.

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