Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1390, (19 - 25 April 2018)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1390, (19 - 25 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Sharp views

At the Ismailia Film Festival, Nahed Nasr met Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Al-Ghanem


Sharp Tools, Nujoom Al-Ghanem’s Dubai Film Festival Muhr Award winning documentary, snatched the best long documentary award at the 20th Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentary and Shorts (IIFFDS). A well-known poet for a decade before she studied filmmaking in the US and Australia, embarking on a filmmaking career to become one of the pioneers of the UAE film industry in the 1990s, Al-Ghanem has made 10 feature-length documentaries in addition to numerous shorts. In the 1980s at a very young age she had been among the pioneers of prose poetry, a form long derided for its divorce from tradition even in more established literary centres like Cairo, but obviously more so in the Arabian Gulf. She wasn’t the only artist rebelling against tradition. One other, Hassan Sherif, was an impressionist and a cartoonist before he became a conceptual artist while studying in the UK at around the same time; his work is now represented at such museums as the Guggenheim, the Centre Pompidou, the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern and the Sharjah Art Foundation. Together with Sherif and other artists emerging in the mid-1980s, Al-Ghanem started the artistic group Aqwas, or bows, which published a bulletin named Al-Ramad, or ashes, and became the core of a new, many-faceted cultural movement in the UAE. Introducing this period through the memories and stories of Sherif, who passed away a few months before its release, Sharp Tools is much more than a biographical film, however. It is, in Al-Ghanem’s own words, “a statement of our artistic generation through Hassan Sherif’s life journey”. 

Sharp tools

Over 84 minutes at his home atelier, Sherif describes his vision and the challenges he faced in the 1980s. Interspersed with lines of poetry Al-Ghanem wrote especially for the film, Sharp Tools affords a glimpse into his everyday life, his isolation with his work and the materials — including sharp tools — with which he creates it. With unusual editing intended to reflect Sherif’s life and work, the film consists mainly of interviews with the artist. Equally significant, however, is the way in which it has allowed her to experiment, liberating her cinematic tools. “In all my previous documentaries the limitations of the subject limited the film’s structure, because you should be loyal to your story. But in a film about such an extraordinary personality I had the space to experiment and to soar freely in terms of structure. It was a liberating experience. Even now, over two years later, it’s hard to let go of it.” One interesting proviso in her agreement with Sherif (which registers in the form of on-screen writing at the end) imposed a different kind of limitation: that only Sherif should appear in the film, with no other artists or critics talking about him; Sherif evidently refused to give that privilege to a cultural sphere that had criticised him so consistently. All this, however, Al-Ghanem understands, speaking with admirable level-headedness about the limits of artistic endeavour in Emirati society. She has been able to tackle only 30-40 per cent of the issues she’d like to deal with in her documentary films, she says. Issues like domestic violence, personal relations and freedom of choice, which Al-Ghanem feels are some of the most crucial, cannot yet be dealt with in cinema. 

“It is very hard for people in my society to be exposed in front of the camera. People are besieged by their fears of what others will say about them or how others will see them. It makes no difference if they’re male or female. For example I wish I could shoot a woman without the traditional burqa, which prevents me from going beyond the surface. But it is no better with male characters, who have their own fears and in some cases even harder considerations.” The lack of funding and the scarcity of actors had prevented her from making a fiction film, on the other hand, even though she has always wanted to. Now that the UAE hosts one of the region’s most important festivals, however, this is no longer an obstacle. “I believe in a society where people cannot talk freely in a documentary film, fiction might be the solution for tackling difficult issues.” Preparing for her next project, her first long fiction film, however, she has fared no batter. “There are emerging attempts to produce fiction films in the Emirates, but filmmakers tend to stick with the safe zones of comedy, action or horror so as to avoid being targeted by institutional or social censorship. Artists have built their own self-censorship mechanisms. This is a dilemma that even money cannot solve. We as artists need to look at cinema as a national project that works as a development tool revealing and discussing our concerns openly and freely.”

Al-Ghanem believes that improvements in film production in the Gulf came about thanks to such events as the Dubai Film Festival, which “played a huge role in motivating local filmmakers to make films to compete in festivals. Especially in festivals where there are Arab film sections, our films are not looked at as a local product, we are placed alongside fellow Arab filmmakers, and this is very important because it means your work is professional and competitive enough.” But in a country where no film industry is yet established cinema is not a priority for cultural policies makers. According to Al-Ghanem, long features are very demanding in terms of production but opportunities for funding are increasingly limited. Currently the only national fund left is the Enjaaz post-production and production support programme of the Dubai Festival. There is a new fund provided by the Sharjah Art Foundation, but it only supports short films. In the last few years filmmakers in the UAE have lost the SANAD Film Fund of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which was canceled in 2015. The same goes for the Gulf Film Festival, and the Emirates Institution Fund. Although increasing budgets are assigned to cultural projects, the film industry has no such luck. “Maybe they have other priorities but if you ask me as a filmmaker I wish cinema was one of my country’s cultural priorities. We’ve had important achievements and we should do our best to build on them. It saddens me to think we’ll give those achievements up.”

On the other hand, Al-Ghanem is optimistic about the changes that have been taking place in Saudi Arabia at the artistic level. “This will have its positive effect on the future of cinema in the region because it will open up new opportunities. I hope there will be further cooperation between Arab artists in the region and not only within the Gulf.” Until that happens, however, Al-Ghanem believes it is important especially for the young Arab filmmakers to work together and support each other to make their films which represent their own concerns and visions instead of depending on financial support from other sources. “They should find each other and learn participatory support so as to overcome the usual challenges that face filmmakers such as finding funding or professionals or technicalities. We need each other. We need to work together to make a different cinema.” This is Al-Ghanem’s first time at the IIFFDS, though her film Red, Blue, Yellow was in the official competition of the 2014 Cairo International Film Festival: the first feature-length Emirati film ever to be screened in the festival. Sharp Tools too is the first feature-length Emirati film to participate in the IIFFDS. “This is the first time I’ve showed a film in an Arab film festival that specialises in documentary films. It’s an important festival that celebrates movies more than celebrities or red carpets, a real festival in a real place where you have the opportunity to see documentaries from all over the world.”

Awards — 20th edition of Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentary and Shorts

Long documentary  competition awards: 

Best long documentary film: 

Sharp Tools by Nujoom Al-Ghanem from the UAE

Jury award for long documentary:

A woman Capture by Berenadett Tuza-Ritter 

Special mention for long documentary:

The Family by Rock Bicek from Slovenia


Short documentary competition awards: 

Best Short documentary :

The Same by Dejan Petrovic from Serbia

Jury award for short documentary:

Arabic Secret by Julia Groszek from Poland 

Special mention for short documentary 

Sub Terrae by Nayra Sanz Fuentes from Spain 


Short fiction competition awards: 

Best short fiction film: 

The Ticket by Haris Stathopoulos from Greece 

Jury award for short fiction: 

Facing Mecca by Jan-Eric Mack from Switzerland 

Special mention for short fiction: 

A Drowning Man by Mahdi Fleifel from Denmark 


The animation film competition: 

Best animation film:

Naqla by Youssef Abdel-Amir Al-Baqshy from Kuwait 

Jury award for animation film

Airport by Michaela Muller from Switzerland

Special mention for animation film

Ugly by Nikita Diakur from Germany 


The awards of The Egyptian Association for Animation:

The best foreign film:

Talent Scout by Jose Herrera from Spain 

The best Arabic film: 

Naqla by Youssef Abdel-Amir Al-Baqshy from Kuwait


Jury award competition: 

Best film:

One day in Aleppo by Ali Ibrahim from Syria

Special mention: 

The Last to Leave Rio by Osama Aiad from Egypt 

Special mention:

Halfway by Rand Beiruty from Jordan 

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