Emirati filmmaker Waleed Al Shehhi tells Melanie Goodfellow about his passion for Andrei Tarkovsky and how he finally faced his fears and shot his debut feature Dolphins.

Emirati filmmaker Waleed Al Shehhi has just premiered his debut feature Dolphins (Dalafeen) at a gala screening in the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).

Although Al Shehhi is showing his first feature-length film, he is no newcomer to the cinema world. The 38-year-old director has been making short films for more than a decade – his seven shorts to date include The Water Guard, Baab and Reeh.

He is also the driving force behind the Cinema Villa project in his home emirate of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), a hub for both directors and film enthusiasts.

“You know there were a lot of barriers for me to start my first feature but I think the greatest one was that I was afraid,” said Al Shehhi. “I was daunted by the responsibility but now I’ve finished my first feature, there are no more barriers. Since the screening of Dolphins, I’ve already received a lot of calls offering projects and sponsorship.”

Set against the backdrop of Ras Al Khaimah’s Hajar Mountains, unspoiled beaches and down-at-heel provincial towns, Dolphins follows the lives of three related but disconnected people – a divorced couple and their emotionally neglected teenage son – over the course of 24 hours.

While the mother frets about the state of her love life, her ambulance-driver, ex-husband sets off on a journey into the mountains with a bereaved man who wants to return the body of his dead mother to her native village.

The son sets off on a perilous sea trip with his best friend on a raft made out of an abandoned fridge and two oil drums. As the mist descends on the emirate, their futures are far from clear.

The film won the $100,000 IWC Filmmaker Award, a collaboration between watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen and Dubai International Film Festival, last year and was also supported by the Dubai Film Market’s post-production support programme Enjaaz and Abu Dhabi media hub twofour54.

Al Shehhi co-wrote the screenplay with long-time collaborator Ahmed Salmeen.

What’s the genesis of the film?

It started out as a short film that Ahmed wrote nearly ten years ago. We went back to it four years ago and started developing it again. We’d go to the locations in the film and sit there for a couple of hours every week, just to soak in the nature of the place and the details. We built it around the locations.

The scene where the boys set off in a raft made out of an old fridge. Where did that come from?

As a child I had a neighbour who ferried his daughters to school in an old fridge when there were floods. I told Ahmed about this and he incorporated this image into the script.

You went from script to finished film in just 12 months. How did you manage to turn the film around so quickly?

As well as screening films we also offer facilities at Cinema Villa – so everything was already in place.

Your director of photography Phuttiphong Aroonpheng hails from Thailand – how did that collaboration come about?

I started a dialogue with him on Facebook after seeing his work in a short film called Mother, which screened at DIFF three years ago. I think what made me go to this guy was that he was going through the same phase as me. He had worked on a lot of short films and it was a big challenge to set to work on a first feature.

We brought in a full team of professionals from Thailand and with each department we planted some students. We had around 25 students joining us for the project. I couldn’t afford an assistant director so I gave the job to one of my students — it worked out well. 

What has the response to the film been at DIFF?

A few people have told me they weren’t satisfied and that they needed more details. But I think the reason for this is that they’re only used to watching TV. When I hold screenings at Cinema Villa, I tell the audience to adjust their mind-set, that they’re watching a film, not TV where everything is explained.

It’s been 15 years now that we’ve been trying to introduce a cinema culture. If we keep doing what we’re doing, bit-by-bit, people will understand. We’re not imitating or going to imitate any type of commercial movie.  I consider cinema being deeper than entertainment only.

You say you’re keen to create a unique style of Emirati cinema but are there filmmakers from elsewhere who have inspired you? 

Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, he’s the one who changed my life and the way I look at cinema. I watch his seven films every month, again and again. Cinema is not only entertainment, it is more than that and this is what he is trying to deliver in his films.

The UAE did not have much of a cinema culture until 10 to 15 years ago, how did you get into film?

I was seven years old when I got my first Russian-made camera. I was running all over the place, taking pictures. It is something that was with me since I was a little kid and I cannot live without it.