Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Dubai, May 2016.
The Emirati Cinema Campaign is a project launched by film director Nawaf Al Janahi a couple of years ago. It aims to raise awareness of the movies made by the United Arab Emirates, mainly because there are so few of them. It’s a cause I’ve been indirectly promoting in these articles for some time, usually by bitching about how almost all the Arabic language productions that make it into UAE cinemas are Egyptian. In my last piece on the subject I directly asked Ohood Al Roumi, newly-appointed Minister of State for Happiness, what she was going to do about it.
When Europe’s Best Website speaks, governments listen. Just three months after that article was written, I returned to Dubai, and there were two UAE films playing in local cinemas that week. Sure, I could be using this influential power to stop the ongoing violations of human rights in the UAE, but you know, baby steps.
Of course, there were Egyptian films out there too. This particular week, they were Hassan Wa Baqloz (“two conjoined brothers face many hilarious situations, getting their cousin involved in the process”) and Kangar Hoppiena (a romcom about a couple who obtain a kangaroo for some fucking reason). So you can see why the prospect of watching Emirati films in Emirati cinemas seemed massively attractive to me. Inevitably, there was a disappointment in store: the first of those films turned out to have English subtitles. But on the bright side, that didn’t stop it being completely incomprehensible.
At the start of Qatrat Dam, a young Abu Dhabi woman called Nouf is talking directly to the camera, telling of her relief after a long ordeal. That ordeal appears to be that, um, she wants a car and can’t get one. Her dad has lots of money, but he’s left her mum to shack up with an utter hag, and their daughter gets a new car every year. Nouf goes to her dad to complain about this, and his new wife completely overreacts, to the extent of putting a curse on Nouf.
Nassar Altimimi (writer/director, so it’s all his fault) appears to be focused on the more atmospheric, surreal parts of the film, and those are passable enough, although frequently marred by some of the most hamfisted sound editing I’ve ever heard in my life. But the narrative, such as it is, is largely carried by frequent scenes of two or three people in a room talking, and Altimimi has literally no idea what he’s doing with these. The closest reference point I can come up with is the 1999 documentary American Movie, a snarky study of a first-time director who thinks he’s making the greatest horror movie in the world, but is hamstrung by his inability to do anything other than create creepy images that look good in a trailer when bolstered with library music. (See video above.)
The film falls apart more the longer it goes on. A subplot involving Nouf’s stepsister and her growing relationship with a doctor is taken so far and then ditched, without any impact to the rest of the film. There are huge establishing shots that linger forever, sometimes merely as the establishing shots for other establishing shots. The total running time of the movie is a mere sixty minutes, but there are massive amounts of padding throughout. And the acting simply isn’t good enough to carry it. This shot – which is even funnier in the trailer – depicts one character’s reaction to the discovery that her sister has been cursed:
The whole thing has the feel of a student film rather than one made by professionals – maybe it is, and I’m being too harsh on it. It’s certainly interesting to see an Emirati film with a largely female cast, and only two male roles of note. But no amount of special pleading can excuse the climax of the film, which pulls off the astonishing trick of fizzling out like a damp squib and soaring into spectacular blithering idiocy almost simultaneously. A touch of craziness spread throughout this film might have given it sufficient energy to get through its more problematic sections: saving it all for literally the last few seconds doesn’t really help.
As I mentioned earlier, Qatrat Dam has English subtitles attached to its UAE prints, as well as an English alternative title (Drop Of Blood). This seems hilariously optimistic, as if anyone else outside of the director’s immediate family would be interested in seeing it. On the night I saw it, during its opening week, I was the only person in the cinema for the first twenty minutes. I was slightly miffed when another couple wandered in at that point, but not as miffed as they seemed to be when the end titles rolled just forty minutes later. By comparison, Dhay Fe Abu Dhabi (Sacrificed In Abu Dhabi, if Bing Translate is to be trusted) seems to be doing much better – one month into its run, there were a couple of dozen locals at a late night midweek screening, and they were audibly enjoying it.
Made independently by a director called Rakan, the film’s main story seems to involve a scruffy guy who’s trying to get a job: he makes the odd bit of money doing things like commentating on a fight between two bulls, but can’t get anything permanent. Halfway through the film he meets a rich old bloke who’s on the point of being arrested for something or other, and this inspires him to get his hair cut and dress more traditionally. Spoiler alert: this is a comedy, so his change of attitude ultimately doesn’t help. The old bloke looked familiar, and when I looked him up afterwards I was delighted to discover that I’d recognised Egyptian film actor Hassan Hosny, who’s had a couple of his movies reviewed here previously. Bringing in foreign talent to help overseas sales shows that Rakan has a much cannier grasp of the market than the makers of Qatrat Dam.
But there aren’t any concessions for those of us who don’t speak Arabic, which turns out to be a problem, as there are loads of other characters and stories that weave in and out of the main plot without ever apparently connecting to it. The mother and daughter who are constantly being courted by most of the other male characters, for example; or a dodgy man who takes over a tobacconist’s shop by force, but gets his comeuppance when something else smokeable is planted in the shop. Eventually the cops roll up and arrest everyone in lieu of an ending: this looks pretty dramatic in the trailer, but in the film itself it has more of the air of everyone just tearing up the script and winging it for the final reel.
Despite all this, I had a much better time with Dhay Fe Abu Dhabi than I ever did with Qatrat Dam, subtitles or no. For a start, it’s a film that’s made by people who know how to use a camera – it looks good throughout, and the scenes of suburban Abu Dhabi at night are something I haven’t seen in the movies before. My traditional gripe about Egyptian comedies and their tendency towards broad overplaying doesn’t apply here: everything’s performed at a naturalistic level, with Hosny dialling his performance back from the gurning and pratfalls that marred Tom & Jimmy.
On a related topic, the film appears to genuinely work as a comedy. I’m partly guessing that from the audience reaction, but there are also a couple of scenes where the lead character holds conversations in English, generally when he’s trying to blag something. He tries to book a luxury hotel room asking for “your biggest and strongest bed,” and bluntly states during a job interview that the main reason why he should be hired is because he wants money (“no money, no funny”). You may have heard better gags, it’s true, but just think how rare it is that English language humour is successfully deployed in non-English language films: in my experience, I think this is the first time I’ve seen it done without embarrassment. It makes it all the more mystifying that several of the Arabic gags are underlined with comedy sound effects: swanee whistles, boings, and even a literal ‘badoom-tish’ on one or two occasions. It’s obviously a cultural thing.
It’s an odd mixture of styles, but it seems to be going down well: to date, Dhay Fe Abu Dhabi has racked up close on one million US dollars at the local box office, which is unheard of for a non-Hollywood production in the UAE. There’s still a way to go before the Emirates can be said to have a film industry: as the Emirati Cinema Campaign website points out, only seven UAE films have made it into local cinemas in the last three years. Between myself and my colleague Blake Backlash, MostlyFilm has now reviewed three of those – so we’ll keep an eye out for any future ones that might interest you.