During a recent visit to Abu Dhabi, I went to the first public viewing of the film Abdullah. This was the first time I had seen an Emirati film. You can watch a trailer here. Abdullah was financed by the Abu Dhabi government, stars Abu Dhabi actors and was produced and directed by Abu Dhabi citizens. The viewing took place in the rarefied atmosphere of the New York University Abu Dhabi campus and attendees had to pre-register. I was not sure what to expect about the film's content, its quality or the audience reaction. There was a sense of nervous anticipation as the lights dimmed and the film started. This was a rare cinematic moment and had the sense of being a touch risky. In a tightly controlled and often segregated society, here were men and women of different cultures sitting together watching a potentially subversive medium dealing with a controversial topic.
The film makes a suitably tense start enhanced by tight camera angles and sparse dialogue, particularly from the film's hero. Abdullah, a native of Abu Dhabi (played by Abu Dhabi actor Mohammed Ahmed) is growing up in a traditional household where his father's word is law and his older brother Hamad (Humaid Alawadi) delights in getting him into trouble. Abdullah feels the shock from the electric fence of tradition from an early age. His father confiscates a video tape of a cartoon after his brother gleefully informs that it ends with the boy and girl kissing on the lips. In the next scene, there is no kissing of any kind when he is handed a toy keyboard by a girl and tentatively presses the keys. Something much more important happens; Abdullah starts a love affair with music. His playmate allows him to keep the toy. His father does not; snatching it away from him as he, Abdullah, crouches in a corner. In his youth, Abdullah turns to the traditional Arab instrument the lute-like oud but his efforts to master it lead to confrontation. After giving up on a dead end job, he flees the family home and moves into a flat accompanied by a piano and portraits of European composers.
While ostensibly a personal journey, there is no hiding the political message of the film. As Abdullah struggles to earn a living as a film score composer in a society which remains wary of such foreign cultural imports as Western classical music and film, he discovers that the national anthem tune was written by a foreigner. He battles to persuade "The Ministry" to adopt his composition or even to allow it to be played in public. In his efforts to achieve a public performance of his piece, he is helped by a British family who are his neighbours and the American conductor of the national symphony orchestra (also largely made up of non-Emirati musicians). As the film moves towards its climax (or rather crescendo), Abdullah's personal relationships suffer and he becomes increasingly desperate.
Abdullah is a cautious exploration of tensions in Abu Dhabi society: young Emiratis fretting at the need to conform to tradition, the perceived threat to those traditions from foreign culture and the reliance of Abu Dhabi on foreign expertise. In the end, it is perhaps too cautious but represents an important step in the development of a homegrown debate. When the lights came up, the audience applauded enthusiastically. There is hope for a debate about the direction of Abu Dhabi society. In the meantime, Emirati film needs to find a distinctive voice and avoid well worn tropes such as the struggling artist in his garret and music as a metaphor for Western liberal culture.
Arabic and English dialogue (with English subtitles), 97 minutes
Director: Humaid Al-Suwaidi
Producers: Humaid Al-Suwaidi, Ahmed Lotfy
Cast: Mohammed Ahmed (Abdullah), Mansoor Al-Feeli (Father), Fatima Al-Taei (Fatima), Alaa' Shaker (Mother), Humaid Alawadi (Hamad), David Daly (Michael), Brent Jenkins (Conductor)