Emirati filmmaker and poet Nujoom Al Ghanem’s latest documentary, Sounds of the Sea, opened at the Abu Dhabi Film festival to critical acclaim. The film offers a peek into the little-known world of local fishermen and their musical renditions
For Emirati filmmaker, Nujoom Al Ghanem, making films is like writing poetry or sculpting or painting. It’s a way of contributing towards making beauty, she says. Filmmaking is a liberating experience for Al Ghanem and gives her a sense of fulfillment.
“Making films keeps me happy, accomplished and brings satisfaction. Sometimes I feel I’m mediating through my films. The flamingos and sea creatures in my latest film,
Sounds of the Sea
is about an ageing folk singer, who wishes to cross the Umm al Quwain creek for the last time in his life on a fishing boat. The documentary brings to life the folklore and music of the fishermen and pearl divers of the UAE. It premiered at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last month in the International Feature Documentaries section.
The film was chosen for development funding by Sanad at last year and is jointly funded by Nahar Productions, Sanad and TwoFour54. Sanad is the development and post-production fund of Abu Dhabi Film Festival The majority of the film’s shoot took place in Umm Al Quwain, with parts shot in Dubai and Fujairah.
As a SANAD-funded project, the film had a better chance of being selected for the film festival, according to Al Ghanem.
“I’m really thrilled. I feel proud that we’ve made an important film that reflects the culture of our country. The audience’s reaction was very heartening and has inspired me greatly.”
Al Ghanem started making films while she was still a student in the US and Australia. Her first films released in 1997 were two short films called Ice Cream and The Park.
“I believe my first short documentary, Between Two Banks in 1999, paved the ground for me as a film producer/director and taught me a lot. I had to make films here in the UAE during a time when filmmaking in our country was still in its infancy from an industrial perspective,” she explains.
Between Two Banks
was accepted to the YAMAGATA International Documentary Film Festival in Japan, and went on to feature at fifteen film festivals, not only in the Arab region but also in Europe and Southeast Asia.
Sounds of the Sea – an international project
Al Ghanem, a writer and poet as well as a filmmaker, wrote the treatment and script for Sounds of the Sea. Her husband, Khalid Albudoor, a well-known Arabic poet and a qualified script-writer , did the research and content development for the project, while Sony provided equipment support.
“Sony was quite generous, since they offered the camera and its lenses for free, which helped us greatly in reducing the cost of production. In fact, this contribution was so touching, it made me feel that I was finally rewarded for my hard work. It’s a great feeling to be trusted and appreciated for who you are and for your work,” says Al Ghanem.
The PMW-F5 was the main camera for this project. It has been used extensively for hand-held shots. The underwater shots were captured using a GoPro camera.
“I used several different lenses to create the arty shots. However, because of the long shooting hours and the constant motion of the boat, the zoom lens came in very handy as it allowed us to change the sizes of the shots easily and quickly,” she explains.
This being a documentary, Al Ghanem had to work with ordinary people, not actors.
“We used the crane for very few shots only for one day, because I was not sure how the actors would react to it. Shooting with the crane is time-consuming and the crew had to move quickly before the actors got bored or felt ill at ease, so we decided to give it a pass.”
Panel lights, in addition to the reflectors, were used extensively in the film.
“Our real treasures were the camera, lens box and, of course, the wireless mics and boom,” adds Al Ghanem.
The post production of the documentary was done in the UAE, Lebanon, France and Austria. The locked version of the film was delivered in Dubai, then sent to Beirut for sound design and sound mixing. The colour grading and DCP (digital cinema package) copy was done in Paris, and the original music was composed and recorded in Vienna.
“We’ve had the most amazing international team that contributed professionally and aesthetically towards making this film to international standards and with great an artistic sensibility,” enthuses Al Ghanem.
Arab filmmaking – a work in progress
Al Ghanem says that as well as funding being a big challenge for up-and-coming and even established filmmakers, a lack of professional studios and personnel are some of the issues that filmmakers in the Arab world have to contend with.
“I feel, we have only a few choices, in which most of them are surviving on commercial projects. It was indeed a joy to work in studios and with professional people that work mainly on feature fiction and documentary films. Even the language they speak is different. It’s the language of art and creativity.”
Though the TV industry is thriving in the region, films are still lagging behind, according to the filmmaker.
“Today, things are much better than what we had in the nineties. Financial support has also become less challenging now,” she comments.
A lot of factors have contributed to this growth, including the proliferation of media and film schools in recent years. Filmmakers have been churning out short films on a variety of topics in recent years.
“Having three big festivals, encourages young filmmakers and students to take their projects to a different level. Feature films, however, have a long road ahead in the MENA region because of the high cost and lack of industrial standards,” she points out.
She adds that films in the region have not progressed at the same rate as TV.
“We need more involvement from the private sector, to support the film industry in the region.
“We have a very strong and good platform for the TV industry, which the film industry lacks. I understand that the rapid development of technology has reduced the gap, but the nature of the TV business remains different to cinema, in this part of the world,” Al Ghanem points out.
In the UAE, content for films is one of the weakest areas, as is the dearth of Arab technicians and cameramen.
“The lack of professional personnel within the same culture makes it a bit harder when working on set, especially if the crew doesn’t speak the same language. Also, post production facilities and professionals for real projects – not commercial – are not so easy to find,” she adds.
For documentary filmmakers, identifying a theme is the most challenging part of the process.
“We are a conservative society. Our people are modest, polite and humble. They don’t like talking about themselves or their problems. They think they shouldn’t share their sorrow or anguish with others as they don’t want to bring more attention to themselves.”
Al Ghanem speaks about the lack of interest in documentaries.
“Documentaries need to expose, reveal, discuss and dissect. When we present our films to the outside world, they think that we don’t have real or serious issues because our films are seldom a real representation of our society. I always find this unfair because they don’t want to view our films from a different perspective,” she explains.
Despite numerous challenges, however, the local film industry is moving forward and the filmmaker feels that it has progressed organically over the years.
Only time will tell how the industry will blossom, as of now,
the road ahead looks bright for Emirati filmmakers.