Emirati cinema shines at Dubai International Film Festival

While still at its infancy, Emirati cinema has come a long way. Vision explores how the Dubai International Film Festival played an important role in its evolution and this year's most prominent filmmakers

As the 12th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) concluded this month, one evident development was the increased visibility of Emirati cinema at the annual event. Since 2006, the week-long festival that is held every December, has played a bigger role in not only showcasing but also encouraging the evolution of Emirati cinema.

One distinguishing feature of the festival in particular, the Muhr Emirati Award, has evolved into one of the most anticipated cinematic awards in the region. The competition started in 2010 as a way for local filmmakers to showcase their talent, and has since succeeded in bringing international attention and acclaim to the festival and the region. It has also managed to attract more contestants over the past five years, granting awards for best documentary, fiction, and short films. To date, it has presented more than 250 awards to selected filmmakers.

During this year’s festival, the contest was comprised of 12 submissions split between five feature films, and seven shorts and documentaries. The number marks a record for the festival and is testament to the rapid growth of Emirati filmmaking.

The Best Muhr Emirati Feature award went to Saeed Salmeen Al Murry for his work on Going to Heaven, a coming-of-age narrative told through the stories of a child. The film has deep connections to UAE, having been shot across Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Fujairah and Dubai. Al Murry's submission previously won an award from the UAE’s Ministry of Interior and was picked for co-production support by Abu Dhabi’s Image Nation in November.

Al Murry, a seasoned veteran in the industry, graduated from the New York Film Academy (Abu Dhabi) and directed numerous critically-acclaimed movies in the past, including Bint Mariam. In 2008, he was named Best Muhr Emirati Filmmaker.  

Going to Heaven has a personal significance to Al Murry, who lost his mother at a young age, similarly to the film's protagonist. “I felt pain about my own mother’s absence for a long time, so I wanted to make a story similar to my own story”, The National newspaper quoted him as saying.

The Award for Best Muhr Emirati Short went to Amna Al Nowais, 27, for her artistic directorial debut Omnia. The short, inspired by a true story, follows receptionist Omnia Ibrahim as she struggles to come to terms with a “purification” ceremony she had undergone years ago, underlining the still pervasive practice of female genital mutilation. Al Nowais felt compelled to tackle an issue of great social importance, and was introduced to Ibrahim with the help of several psychologists.

Naser Al Dhaheri, 55, was named Best Muhr Emirati Director for his submission A Tale Of Water, Palm Trees, and Family. His film highlights the region’s ancestral heritage and pays homage to those who traditionally depended on the earth for subsistence. Production took two years, with the film crew travelling throughout the country to capture the envisioned shots of Emirati scenery. The Al-Ain native, widely known in the UAE as a writer and journalist, surprised many when he composed, produced and directed the documentary. Al Dhaheri had always been an avid cinema enthusiast, and his prior written work on elements of Emirati culture inspired his first foray into filmmaking.

Previous winners of the award also returned the festival with fresh submissions. The 2009 Most Promising Filmmaker director Manal Ali Bin Amro, 37, presented the Smell of Bread, a touching story of a hearing-impaired girl subject to abuse at home. Another former award recipient, Aisha Al Zaabi, 22, who won the 2014 Muhr by dazzling viewers last year with The Other Dimension, presented a short titled My Dear Home with Love.

Another noteworthy success in Emirati cinema is Waleed Al Shehhi’s Dolphins, which premiered at DIFF 2014, but is finally hitting movie screens this December. Funding of $100,000 for the film became available after the film won the 2nd IWC Filmmakers Award at DIFF 2013.

The next DIFF runs from December 7-14. See dubaifilmfest.com for more details.