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, October 2016.
Yes, yes, I know: this’ll be the third MMC to come from the United Arab Emirates this year. But there’s an interesting narrative arc spread across them. Back in March, I was complaining about the lack of local movies showing in Dubai cinemas, and suggested that any authoritarian regime worth its salt should be able to do something about that. Three months later, I went back there and found that there were two UAE productions in theatres that week – admittedly, one of them was atrocious, but the other one suggested that the fledgling Emirati film industry might have a future.
So, five months after that, I returned to see if that was just a one-off. (Okay, I was mainly there for a work assignment, but it sounds cooler framed as a mere research trip.) Was there still a UAE presence in Dubai cinemas? Could there be as many as two local productions showing in the week I was there? Would one of them be a bit rubbish but the other one be quite good, to give the ensuing article a bit of a structure? Let’s see.
Initially, I must admit, the prospect of seeing Hajwala was an exciting one. I tend to rely on the cinema listings on the Time Out Dubai website when I’m in town, and they told me that Hajwala was a Saudi Arabian documentary about the craze of drift racing sweeping the country. Be honest, that’s a combination of subject matter and country of origin that seems too good to be true. And it turned out it almost was: Time Out had mistaken this film for Hajwalah, an entirely different movie from a year ago. Still, it’s useful to learn that Time Out’s decline in basic journalistic competence is a worldwide thing and not just limited to the London edition.
This particular Hajwala is a UAE fictional film rather than a documentary, but it also explores the current Arabic fad of the same name, in which young men soup up cars and push them to the limit. (Although from the minimal research I’ve done, it would appear that the Saudi version is more a way for guys to show off how much money they have by buying cars and writing them off in the most spectacular fashion possible.) Still, it’s another Emirati film to report on – unfortunately, it’s one that’s been fitted with English subtitles. Luckily, they’re not very good, almost reminiscent of Hong Kong cinema in its heyday: characters change the spelling of their names in consecutive captions, there’s frequent use of ridiculously archaic English, and the bit where a character sings along to the radio is captioned “(sings along)” throughout.
It’s the story of two rival drift racing teams, who might as well be called Team Goodies and Team Evil for all the subtlety on display here. The problem with the film is that it can barely find any plot for Team Goodies – all they really get to do is hang out with each other, most notably in a massively gratuitous five-minute-plus bit of product placement for the Ferrari World theme park in Abu Dhabi. Team Evil gets most of the screen time, especially its boss Khalid. With a big contest coming up, he’s short of a decent car, mainly because his whore of a pregnant wife got it impounded while driving his sick mother to hospital. He decides to take drastic steps to give himself the winning edge in the race. Will he succeed? Emirati cinema’s got a long way to go before it starts embracing moral ambiguity, so I think you know the answer to that one.
What about the drift racing? After all, that’s a major selling point in the publicity. It’s surprising how little there is in the film – or maybe not so surprising, given that directors Ali Bin Matar and Ibrahim Bin Mohamed are obviously making this on a low budget. There’s a comic relief character called Bilal who frequently turns up at races and complains about how rubbish all the driving is. And although we can’t expect this film to have the polish of a Fast And The Furious, it’s hard to disagree with him. The closest thing to authentic action is a lengthy sequence when Team Goodies visit an arena to watch a display of drifting, presumably involving real-life hajwalah drivers, whose names are flashed up on screen alongside each stunt. (The picture at the top of this page is from an actual hajwalah display that’s infinitely cooler than anything you’ll see in the film. Sorry about that.)
The climactic duel is reasonably well shot for the most part, apart from a distracting sequence where a drive-by is filmed in high-resolution slo-mo that’s good enough to see the shadow of the drone camera flying over the road. The climax – when a car finally gets totalled – is completely botched because the filmmakers don’t have the money to do that on camera. Still, at the end, the leader of Team Evil is in prison as he deserves to be. And in what appears to be a gratuitous twist of the knife by the writers, it’s revealed that Khalid’s new-born child has hearing problems just like his previous one, implying that on top of everything else he’s got DEAF SPUNK. Remember that thing I said earlier about moral ambiguity?
Still, enough of that, let’s have something for the kids. These days, that means CG animation, and Bilal appears to be the first feature-length one made in the Emirates. There are obviously high hopes for an international audience for this: an English language dub exists alongside the Arabic original, featuring top names like Ian McShane and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje in the voice cast. In the Mall Of The Emirates multiplex I visited, the English and Arabic versions were playing in adjacent screens. But I think you can guess which one I ended up seeing.
Bilal’s had a troubled life. His mum was taken away by soldiers when he was little: his little sister Ofilia is constantly being threatened with things you can’t say out loud in a UAE film: and he’s had a long-standing rivalry with multiple generations of the same family, including a big-eyebrowed kid the same age as him. Constantly beaten and abused, he’s bound to snap eventually: when a guy comes along offering to lead some sort of rebellion, he’s happy to join in. Inevitably, as Bilal’s name is in the title, he ends up playing quite a big role in the rebellion.
An English language soundtrack is all well and good, but it’ll be interesting to see how Bilal will play in non-Arabic countries, because it’s bleak as hell. The frequent scenes of torture (including one where Bilal is publicly squashed under a boulder for several minutes), not to mention the many early scenes of child peril, will make this a hard film to contain in a 12A or PG-13 rating. But it looks astonishing – co-directors Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal have gone for a properly cinematic look, eschewing virtual camera swoops in favour of old-fashioned blocking, even going so far at one point as to recreate the exact feel of a traditional crane shot. This pseudo-realistic approach extends to the imagery itself, which only goes gargantuan when it has to: an early demonic dream sequence, an apocalyptic shot of a city in flames, and the climactic battle (which is the point where they finally crack and break out the swoopy cameras, but by that point they’ve earned it).
This realism does, however, have its own problems. Someone’s made the decision to make the character faces look realistic, rather than go for the stylisation of a Pixar or Dreamworks production. This leads to two issues: the traditional one of the Uncanny Valley, and the more surprising realisation that digital old age makeup is just as bad as the practical stuff. Also, it may not be a film for animal lovers – at one point Bilal’s mount performs an impressive display of horse fu, but at the climax literally hundreds of digital Dobbins are tripped up or carved to pieces.
Still, put aside those qualms, and the sweep and the look of Bilal carries you along all the way to a splendid coda: initially it looks like it might be a hook for Bilal 2, but it reveals itself to be something much more satisfying. There don’t seem to be any firm plans as yet for a release outside of the Middle East, but keep your eyes open just in case. Either way, do you want to hear Akon and RedOne’s end titles song for the English version? Well, tough, here it is regardless.