In Traffic with Abdulla Al Kaabi
I don’t exactly believe in signs, but I do have a fondness of the number 13. Besides being born on January 13th, the number felt extra special because people flocked away from it out of superstition. It somehow seemed fitting that I made the decision to pursue writing more seriously at the 13th edition of the Dubai International Film Festival this past December while in a dark cinema.
The film I was watching, Only Men Go to the Grave, follows the story of a family trying to uncover their blind mother’s secret during the traditional 3-day funeral sometime after the end of the Iraq-Iran war. It’s daring in story and risky in execution, but not without reward, earning its Emirati writer-director Abdulla Al Kaabi the DIFF Best Muhr Emirati Feature.
I knew of Abdulla ever since he came out with his first short, The Philosopher (2010), with famed French actor Jean Reno. His beautiful short, Koshk (2014), was shot in Iran as an experiment ahead of this first feature. A multi-talented visionary, I was thankful he was also kind enough to invite me to his villa to talk about his journey in traffic.
How did it all start for you?
I’m from Fujairah, which is a small Emirate, one of the smallest in the UAE. I was brought up in a small town on the coast overlooking the Gulf of Oman. It’s a beautiful place with mountains and beaches. It was beautiful, but at night there wasn’t much else to do so the only thing left was renting movies from the one VHS store.
I remember on one birthday and before I blew the candles telling my mom, “I want to be like the guy who works there” because I thought he made the movies! I learned later on that there was someone behind it all called a filmmaker, so ever since I was a kid I started calling myself that.
When I finished my undergrad, I started working for Dubai TV as a presenter. I knew I was in love with this production ambiance, but around that same time someone close to me went through a critical condition and was about to die. Thank God he survived. At that moment I knew I always have to go for what I want, and I knew I wanted to be in filmmaking. Always have. “Make TV shows or something like that,” people would say. “Why would you want to work in film?” But I knew I wanted to work in film and I started taking it more seriously 8 years ago when I went to Paris to get an MFA in Filmmaking.
So you went from presenting to filmmaking. You’ve also written and directed most of your work, including this feature. Going forward, do you think you’ll pursue filmmaking, writing, or something else entirely?
I thought about becoming a writer but I think there’s much more for me to express through film. Of course, you should always be open to change. Right now my mind is set on filmmaking. I have a goal and once I achieve that goal maybe I set my mind on something else. Also, in modern life today, it’s very different. I believe we no longer have careers.
How do you mean?
Maybe this is a very avant-gardist view of how the professional life should be, but now you just take on projects. Life is about projects. You take on this project no matter what it is. Once it is done, you should be open to take on any other project from any other field, whatever it is. So you can’t limit yourself and say “This is a career and I can take only this path and I will reach my goal” because then you become a slave to a certain kind of life, whereas as a human you grow and you change.
Career is a very strict, tough and foreign idea. If you see my parents’ generation, they were doing a thousand things at the same time because they had to. They were open and I think we have to follow that kind of thinking. You should always feel open.
Did you feel limited?
Maybe I was. That’s why I wasn’t comfortable as a presenter on TV. It was the epitome of having a career and is quite obvious: you have to work on this show and then you move on to a better show and so on. It wasn’t for me.
Do you not like routine, then?
Not at all. You should use routine but you shouldn’t make routine use you. Of course as a filmmaker you should have discipline. When you’re working on something you should have a routine for that thing but you shouldn’t be a slave to it. It should work for you.
How do you hold on to creative courage?
I want to make movies that people are going to watch. You have to give them a reason to want to come and watch the movie rather than stay in and watch whatever’s on TV. You have to give them substance, and to do that you will need to have courage.
I remember I showed Only Men Go to the Grave to an Iraqi reporter who was quite conservative. I was editing and I just showed it to him because I wasn’t sure about the accents. I am not an Iraqi and needed someone to consult. And then I forgot: the story is right there and he is going to understand it. So after he watched the movie he shared his notes, and then he said, “Are you sure about this movie?” I asked why. He said, “You’re going to get into a lot of trouble.” I asked why again. He said, “You’re talking about a lesbian love story, a transvestite, about gender. I think it’s a film that’s going to get you into trouble, and it’s a bad film. I don’t think it’s a good film.”
That shook me. I was so insecure. Even to this moment I’m insecure about the movie. Then I felt bad and my confidence wasn’t so high. What I learned was never to show a movie in the making. I usually wouldn’t do it, but I had to.
How do you weed out the noise of traffic and focus on where you’re going?
I travel a lot. When you’re traveling you’re mostly by yourself. Through my travels I get most of my ideas because I’m out of my element. Everything around me is new and it makes me more present. And once I’m present I find myself filled with new ideas.
All the ideas that I’ve had for this film I got through my travels. Not just ideas for the movie but ideas of how to make it also. I want to even share the travel experience with the viewer. As Arabs we haven’t even seen the Arab Iranians, some of us don’t even know they existed. At least that was the case for myself. That’s something that I wanted to explore in this film and have as a different cultural backdrop. I just wanted to celebrate the diversity in this region.
What’s been a major obstacle for you in the process of making this film?
Financing. It’s been such a long process over the past 5 years, sometimes it’s hard to even remember. But to be very honest with you, I knew in the end I had to go through self-financing. Then we also shot it in Iran. That wasn’t part of the plan. It evolved to be shot in Iran. The costs were low there. The talent, crew, infrastructure there as you know is one of the best in the Middle East and it added a lot to the film.
We do have creatives here. Especially in filmmaking there are many. Not all of us are as fortunate as others. And without financing, without funding there is no film, honestly. Maybe now there are some bodies popping up here and there but their motives are purely commercial. That’s why we need government support, because that’s not for profit, that’s for culture.
We can all make films. It’s how you make them that’s the hard part. And honestly financing was such a bummer. It was there but it’s just peanuts. It doesn’t amount to 10% of what you want to do. It’s nothing for filmmaking and especially for a proper feature film. So you’re wondering how to get the rest. I had a lot of support here and there, and an art collector came on board to help as well, but it was mostly self-financed. This was good because at least it allowed me more freedom to take risks in many ways, and I think that’s why the movie did so well.
What’s success to you?
My father and my mother. They were in tears of pride. My dad came to both my screenings at DIFF. It’s a movie you should watch a couple of times. They didn’t get it the first time but then got into it. They really loved it.
What’s the next destination?
Right now I’m just focused on getting the movie out there. Once it’s out there, a lot will have to be ready because it’s a movie that is heavy and will open a lot of dialogue, and I should be there to support it.
Update: I'm happy to share that after this interview was conducted, Only Men Go to the Grave was acquired for distribution by MAD Solutions. You can follow Abdulla Al Kaabi on his Instagram for more updates.
If you're in Doha: the film will be screened by Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar on Wednesday, February 22nd at 7PM. Click here for more info.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.