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The origins of cinema in the Persian Gulf are modest, and the industry is still, in many ways, a work-in-progress. The region’s first film, Khalid Al Siddiq’s The Cruel Sea (Bas Ya Bahar) appeared in Kuwait in 1972, and surprised film aficionados with a tragic story set in the country’s pre-oil, pearl-diving days, for no less than its technical accomplishments.
Since then, cinema in the Persian Gulf region entered a dormant period, and it was only at the turn of the millennium when it began to cement its role in Khaleeji (Gulf) culture. Films such as Nawaf Al-Janahi’s The Dream (2005) and Ali Mostafa’s City of Life (2009) lay the foundations for the nascent cinema industry in the United Arab Emirates, and ever since, a modest – yet significant – number of short and feature films have emerged from the region.
When speaking about Bahraini cinema, it’s hard to ignore the impact of Muharraq native Mohammed Rashed Bu Ali, perhaps the most active filmmaker in his country’s generation. Bu Ali debuted as a filmmaker in 2006, and since then has produced a good number of innovative works. His short films, Absence (2008),The Good Omen (2009), and Canary (2010) deviate from the use of commonplace storylines in contemporary Arab cinema – which somewhat imitate the linear narrative of a novel carpeted with heroes and anti-heroes – and present instead acute meditations on loneliness via poetic fragments, paradoxes, and elaborate metaphors drawn from traditional Bahraini culture.
The striking poetry of Qassim Haddad, the tradition of the ‘Good Omen’ (Al Bishara), the act of hanging a traditional female dress over a roof to announce the return of a long-absent family member, and other symbols enrich Bu Ali’s films, and are interwoven in simple stories that more resemble the oral folklore of the island, as opposed to the social struggles normally portrayed in contemporary Arab cinema. Accordingly, his film, The Good Omen commences with the question, ‘Who would leave the sea and build his house in the desert?’ which is followed in turn by another question: ‘What good is the sea when it has all dried up … and the waters covered with sand?’
It would be a mistake, however, to perceive Bu Ali’s films as being nostalgic, or presenting a glimpse into everyday Arab life, for he constantly plays with the opposing forces of tradition and modernity, the bucolic and the urban, and meditative silence versus lush, elaborate sound. His most recent film, Huna London (2012) – which tells the story of an old Bahrani couple on a mission to send a photograph of themselves to their son in London – departs from the themes of his trilogy of short films, while still retaining the sense of opposition between the traditional and the modern, albeit in a more comic manner. This film won Bu Ali the 3rd prize at the Official Gulf Competition in the 2012 Gulf Film Festival.
Bu Ali’s work is a paradigm for the particular nature and history of Bahrain, a multicultural frontier society that developed a cosmopolitan character along sea trade routes before the era of modernization – a place comparable to only Beirut, perhaps – which serves as a perfect setting for a practice of art and film. This practice isn’t necessarily at odds with itself, bur rather, seeking in its own underpinnings, alternatives to the binary choice between tradition and modernity. In his films, conversations about and reflections on tradition are variants of being essentially modern. Reclaiming the sea, the traditional landscapes and lifestyles of Bahrain, and its folklore represent anything but escapism in Bu Ali’s work; rather, they are symbolic of the exact opposite – a radical openness towards the past.
Bu Ali’s films have been screened in over a dozen countries and film festivals, making him the most international of Bahraini filmmakers. In addition to Huna London being scheduled for a screening at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival, Bu Ali also produced in 2010 the documentary, Sea Interviews, as part of Reclaim, which marked Bahrain’s first participation at the Biennale de Venezia’s 12th International Architecture Exhibition, and earned the kingdom a Golden Lion award for the Best National Pavilion. The complex artistic venture represented a joint effort by Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture, the Bahrain Urban Research Team, and photographer Camille Zakharia, who explored the decline of sea culture in Bahrain, as well as the use of its coastline as a public space.
Bu Ali spoke recently about his film career, his recent projects, the workings of the film industry in the Persian Gulf region, and the future of filmmaking in Bahrain.
What initially prompted your interest in making films, Mohammed?
We were out with a group of around 13 people – ten of them decided to watch Schwarzenegger’s End of Days,while I and the rest watched Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile. I was a totally different person when I left the cinema; I don’t know what happened that day. I simply couldn’t stop reading and researching about the film, the writer, and the director, and I began to watch all their films. My research about and passion towards cinema led me through many stages. First, I was writing about films in Internet forums; then, I began writing articles in newspaper, and later, started working at the local cinema selling tickets and popcorn. When I wrote my first script and turned it into a real film, I said, ‘That’s it – I’m not going to make anything else anymore’, but after the good reviews and encouraging words I received, I felt I should continue, and here I am – a filmmaker.
What is it you wanted to say and express in your films, and how do they serve as reflections of Bahrain for you?
Actually, it’s funny. When I started out, I only wanted to make a good film based on films that I liked, but then, I found myself withdrawn deep into my emotions – especially when I first came up with the idea of the film, Absence. There was something inside me being triggered, and I felt so close to the older people of Bahrain, and how they think and live. I was very attracted to them, and wanted to tell the world about their emotions, and show the difference between their thoughts and ours. You can see this in Absence, The Good Omen, Canary, and Under the Sky; it’s the theme of loneliness, told through different stories and emotions. There’s also the authentic identity of Bahrain, which I feel so connected to because it’s just so real – not simply made out of concrete and cement.
What is your relationship to all that’s happening in the cinema industry in the rest of the Persian Gulf and the Arab world?
I feel so proud of the new generation of Gulf filmmakers, and how they’ve gotten so interested in making and producing films. We have to thank Masoud Amr Allah, Founder of the Emirates Film Competition, Director of the Gulf Film Festival, and Artistic Director of the Dubai International Film Festival for all the work he has done to help create this movement and change in the filmmaking industry in the region. Without his work, I seriously doubt any of us among the new generation of filmmakers would be in the place we are today.
I am a new face to the Arab filmmaking industry, and I’m trying to build up the connections between our films in the Gulf and the Arab film industry. As you can see in my latest film, Huna London, I am from Bahrain, the writer, Mohammed Hassan Ahmed, is from the Emirates, and the cinematographer, Chaker Ben Yahmed, is from Tunisia. It was a collaborative effort between Arabs of different nationalities.
Can you tell us a bit about your future film projects?
The Sleeping Tree is what I’m focusing on now – it’s my first film, which I’ve been working on since 2008 with the writer Fareed Ramadan. I feel that I had to become a filmmaker just to make it, as I feel so connected to it – emotionally and personally.
In this film, I seek to highlight some of the stories and cultural underpinnings that have been instrumental in maintaining the unique island identity of Bahrain for centuries. In portraying a traditional Bahraini family, the reality of marriage and family life will be conveyed beyond our borders to an international audience, as will the unique musical heritage of Bahrain, its folk tales and myths (e.g. the Tree of Life), and traditional marriage ceremonies.
What prospects, in your opinion, does the future hold for filmmakers in Bahrain?
I am really excited about the future of filmmaking in Bahrain, especially since the establishment of the new Bahrain Film Fund. The decision of the Ministry of Culture to support Bahraini filmmakers will lead to new and better quality productions that can help young filmmakers tell their stories in far more accomplished ways. It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing really good short and feature films produced in Bahrain, which will participate in regional and international film festivals and events.