Emirati filmmaker Nujoom Al Ghanem talks to Liz Shackleton about how she worked with trail-blazing camel owner Fatima Ali Alhameli and building a film industry in the Emirates.

“This is like ice cream for Bedouin – we don’t have ice cream, we have this instead,” says camel owner Fatima Ali Alhameli, scooping the froth off a bowl of camel milk, adding that she can’t sleep properly without it.  

Nujoom Al Ghanem captures a charismatic and strong-willed character in her latest feature documentary, Nearby Sky, about the first Emirati woman to enter her camels into local auctions and beauty pageants. Born in the UAE’s Liwa Oasis and married at the age of 15, Fatima may be illiterate, but she knows her camels, and won’t be deterred by a society that feels it’s inappropriate for her to do what she does.

The film, which is playing in DIFF’s Muhr feature competition, was produced by Al Ghanem and Khalid Albudoor’s Nahar Productions and Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation (ADMAF) with support from Enjaaz. It follows soon after Al Ghanem’s Sounds Of The Sea, a feature documentary about the last journey of an old famous sea singer, which screened at this year’s Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Born in Dubai, Al Ghanem studied filmmaking in the US and Griffith University in Australia and has made several award-winning short fictions and feature-length docs. Her 2013 documentary Red Blue Yellow, about Emirati artist Najat Makki, screened at DIFF last year.

Was it difficult to persuade Fatima to make the film?

Not at all – she is a bold and extraordinary woman. A friend told me about her and I filmed her for a video I was making for [Abu Dhabi government organisation] Mubadala about role models. When I first met her, I had a feeling it might not be easy, because she’d already had a lot of media exposure and had developed a certain way of presenting herself. She’d reached the point where she was almost over-acting. However I decided we could do something unique together. In 2012, I started meeting her for research and filming whenever there was an opportunity.

But you did capture her real side…

Yes we developed that relationship over one and a half years. It was almost one and a half years before she started talking in a lower voice and opening up to me. We had reached that point where she started trusting me.

Both this film and Sounds Of The Sea involve the older generation looking back with nostalgia to the past. Is that a common theme in your work?

Just in these few films – personally I like change. The characters I focus on might be older, but the films are not necessarily about change itself.  What mostly fascinates me are the characters – if I feel we can communicate and they agree to spend time with me, then I start working with them and doing the research. It’s about the individuals and the stories they have to tell.

Is it becoming easier in the Emirates for a woman to do what Fatima does? Is society changing?

People in this society are either forced to change or they just have to cope with it. We are moving very fast, but people are not like buildings, they need to go through change at their own pace and they need time to process it. Also our people come from different backgrounds – people from Sharjah and Dubai started to get an education in the ’60s, but Fatima comes from the desert empty quarter where change was slower.

She moved to the city when she was 15 but didn’t have the opportunity to get the right education. So she is illiterate, but her children had better opportunities, and you can see the gap – both educational and cultural. We have this reality that there are gaps between the generations.

I don’t think all the people in the UAE are ready to change, but they have to accept change. Fatima had never been to a cinema in her whole life before last night’s premiere – and she was the star !

Do you think we’ll see a sustainable film industry grow in the Emirates?

First we have to protect the festivals. Honestly speaking, if it wasn’t for the local film festivals we wouldn’t have reached this point. Having three major festivals – Dubai, Gulf and Abu Dhabi – in the same country is a great outlet for filmmakers and for cinema in the UAE. Now it is our challenge to keep these festivals going because sustainability is very important for filmmakers. If you look at the film industries around the world, especially in Europe and Canada, they’ve been built because of governmental support.

What else needs to happen to help the local industry develop?

We still need collaborative support so we don’t put all the pressure on the government. We need public-private partnerships so that expenditure can be split and both sides will benefit from the facilities that are going to be built. If the dream is to grow, we have to have the right facilities that are affordable for filmmakers.

Distribution is also a huge gap. Even selling to TV is not so easy because they like the straightforward, shorter documentaries with commentary. Several years ago we tried to sell one of our films, which had won several prizes regionally and internationally, and one of the regional TV channels said we can air it for you as an encouragement. Another said we can give you six thousand Dirhams. I think the catering budget of the film was more than that.