Emirati filmmaker Fadel Almheiri explains to Melanie Goodfellow how nostalgia for a bygone way of life in the UAE inspired his tragicomic Abood Kandaishan.

Emirati director Fadel Almheiri’s Abood Kandaishan revolves around a social misfit who has been left behind by the UAE’s rapid economic development of the past few years.

The son of a late, air-conditioning tycoon, Abood lives alone in a dilapidated villa in a forgotten part of Abu Dhabi with his faithful Indian butler.

When the company he works for on the outskirts of the city decides to transfer him to the more central head office, his life is sent into a tailspin.

The film follows Abood over the course of 48 hours as he scrambles to reverse the decision.

The feature, which premiered in DIFF’s Muhr Emirati section on Thursday (Dec 11), will also play in a free public screening on the beach on Saturday (Dec 13).

It is Almheiri’s debut feature after a number of award-winning shorts. He produced and directed the micro-budget picture guerrilla-style under the banner of his fledgling company Tent Pictures Productions.

He talks about inspiration behind the film and how he made it on a tiny budget. 

Who is Abood Kandaishan?

He’s a sort of folkloric character inspired by everything that is disappearing in our society – the neighbourhood life, our old-style houses, the alleys. His whole story is a reflection on a way of life that has disappeared since the 1990s.

My mother often recalls how there used to an open area between her house and that of the neighbours’ and that the kids would go out to play. Now we live behind high-walls and barely know our neighbours.

Abood’s family name Kandaishan is a pun on ‘air conditioning’. In the Emirates we traditionally take our names from the activities of our families. Abood’s father was the first person to introduce air-conditioning to the UAE, but as the old-style window units were replaced by more modern systems, the business ran into trouble.

The other thing I wanted to shed light on is when people talk about the UAE, they associate it wealth and super-fast progress – but not everyone in the country is filthy rich and this progress has come at a price. 

I wanted to introduce characters from real society and to bring the camera into our homes and neighbourhoods to show how we really live. I wanted to show this in the cinema.

How did you shoot the film?

We shot it guerrilla style against the backdrops of everyday locations like the supermarket or the soccer stadium. My crew fitted into one taxi. I didn’t want to wait around for permits. 

When we shot the scenes in the soccer stadium, each crew member went through a separate gate and we met up in the stadium. It was a final match between an Al Ain team and a Dubai team. We’re trying to do something different. We didn’t want to make a film that looked like a television soap opera. 

The budget was really low, just 50,000 dirham ($13,000), which we raised through sponsors, principally the national oil company ADNOC. We sold it to them on the back of the fact we wanted to make comedy and show it in a venue like the Dubai Film Festival. We shot a few scenes in their gas stations. 

How are you going to distribute it?

We don’t have a distributor yet. We want to see how it goes down at the festival and then we’ll approach companies. We saw a glimpse of the potential with the poster featuring Abood standing in front of graffiti – it went viral. Even the festival used it to represent UAE films. 

What are you working on next?

I have a book called Kingdom of Peacocks which is going to be released in the US next year. It’s based on a script I developed about the Portuguese invasion of the Gulf in the 1500s. It won a development prize at the first Abu Dhabi Film Festival. I wanted to write an historical, action adventure screenplay. From 2007 to the end of last year, I went on a lot of script courses, with the Torino Film Lab as well as in Hollywood.

Rather than leaving it sitting on my laptop, I decided to turn it into a book – but I soon discovered that writing a screenplay and a book are two very different activities and rather than doing it over the course of two weeks as I originally planned, it took me two years. 

It talks about a kingdom in the Arabian Gulf which doesn’t exist but the story reflects a lot of things we’re facing these days – politically, socially and even in terms of religion. The arrival of the Portuguese is also a way to express what is happening to us today with the extremist groups, the US ships and in the political arena. The only difference is that they used to be called pirates, now they are called terrorists, but they all fall under the same category.