Beyond the Glass Towers: Sea Shadow
18.10.2011 - For the past 10
years, Nawaf Al-Janahi has led efforts to build a viable film scene
in the UAE, both as a spokesman (he started the country's first
online film community) and as a filmmaker and actor who frequently
contributed to the vanguard Emirates Film Competition. Over time,
his short films were selected by more regional and international
festivals, and he gained more attention as a rising local talent.
His first feature, The Circle (2009) was one of the first
Emirati features to be screened internationally.
Now Al-Janahi, who was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, stands
poised to become one of the region's most prominent filmmakers. His
second feature, Sea Shadow, is backed by ImageNation Abu Dhabi - the
powerhouse behind No. 1 box office hits Contagion and The Help - and looks to be
distributed overseas. The film, which receives its world premiere
at ADFF on Wednesday as part of the Festival's
New Horizons Competition, is a gentle coming-of-age drama set
in a small seaside community in Ras Al Khaimah, far from the
stereotypical glamour and bustle of the UAE's urban centers.
Al-Janahi sat down with us this week to talk about the development
of the film, representing Emirati cinema and his vision of
How did you come to choose Mohamad Hassan Ahmad's
screenplay for your second feature?
Well, we've known each other for many years now. We've worked
together on many films before - most of them shorts - but it was
never a relationship of writer and director. Over time the
relationship grew in such way that we realized that we like each
other's ideas - we have shared concepts and ideas.
And then he proposed the initial concept for this film as a
short; that was maybe in 2007 or 2008. I liked the idea, and we
worked on a few drafts. We were almost ready to shoot in 2009, but
finally I told him that I didn't feel this was a short film: I felt
it had potential to be a feature. That was like three or maybe four
weeks before the shoot. And I thought he was going to hesitate, or
maybe ask me to give it to someone else because he had never
written a feature film before. But no, in fact, his eyes glowed,
and he said, "Let's do it!" So I stopped everything on the project,
and we went back to work on the script with the objective of making
So you worked closely with him on the
Yeah, you could say that. Mohamad is a very brilliant
writer, but I like to work very closely with my writers, and I
think it helped a lot that we started with the concept from the
beginning together. So the progression was natural.
Tell us about the differences between the film's
small-town setting and the typical image of the UAE.
The location is important because of the story and the characters.
We needed someplace humble and simple. It was crucial for the
nature of the story, to make it believable and its characters
believable. I get this question sometimes - people ask, "Why did
you have to go there?" It's as if there are no stories there.
People are used to the image that we always see on TV of UAE: the
big buildings, the glass towers, Abu Dhabi, Dubai. All that is
nice, but there is also the other side, there are other areas that
have their own rich stories.
So it was important for you to bring out that side of life
The most important thing to me is to tell a story. Where that
story is, I really don't care. In what language, I really don't
care. It has to be deep and human. If I love the story, then I'm
going to tell it.
Do you feel any pressure as a prominent Emirati director
to be a spokesman for Emirati cinema?
Well, I don't know if such a situation exists. [laughs] Because my
fellow filmmakers and I, we've been talking about Emirati cinema
all these years, since we started with the Emirates Film
Competition here in Abu Dhabi in 2001. So I don't see the
difference. I'm just doing what I'm doing, I keep making films, and
since I care a lot about where Emirati cinema is going, and how is
it shaped, I don't think the status of one film makes a
How would you characterize Emirati cinema? How would you
describe your national cinema to an outsider?
In my view it's a little bit too early to give Emirati cinema such
labels. It's too young and it's too, let's say, passionate, and too
new. Things could change considerably in a year or two - I don't
know. But to give labels like we have for Russian cinema, Italian
cinema, French cinema - this happens over a period of years, it
needs some buildup. And I think we're still in that phase. Nobody
talked about neo-realism in the first year of that movement in
Italy, you see what I mean? It has to happen first, and then people
later reflect on it, critics reflect on it - it's a buildup. So
let's wait a little bit and see. The most important thing today is
to keep making films. The most important thing is to keep the cycle
spinning, and focus on making good films.
You received a grant from the Emirates Foundation for
Sea Shadow's screenplay before the project was picked up
by ImageNation Abu Dhabi. How do you feel about the initiatives set
up by the government to support the film industry here?
I think today the possibilities are there, the options are there.
When we started out in 2001, there was nothing, literally. I mean,
you had to pay for everything from your own pocket. Today, at least
you have some options, there are many doors open. I think this
project was blessed to be considered by these entities - it's a
great thing. ImageNation spoke to me after they saw my first
feature, and they were interested in what I was planning next. I
told them about what I was working on, and they liked the idea - we
hit it off from there.
What would you say to a young filmmaker who was starting
out in the industry here?
The first thing I always say is you should understand what you are
getting yourself into. This is a very difficult field, it's a very
complicated field. Have commitment, have devotion, stay true to
your real work. It's the most complicated job in the world in my
view. Being a director, or a filmmaker in general, is not easy.
It's not about the glamour or the spotlight. It's about telling
stories. It's a 24/7 job. Some people have the passion, and that
passion is important of course, but it's not enough. You really
need to do your research, you really need to build up your taste,
build up your cinematic awareness. You need to read, you need to
watch films. And you need to know people - it's a lot of things. I
think what would help any young filmmaker is to plan. Know your
path, know where you're going.
Do you feel an obligation to stay here and make films in
the Emirates, or do you feel you can also represent your country by
making films abroad?
Both, definitely. I represent my country just being a citizen,
just being myself. I'm an Emirati, so whether I work here or
outside of the country, I'm an Emirati and the name of my country
will be mentioned anyway. I don't feel an obligation to stay here,
nor is there a mandate to go abroad. It's a career, and wherever
that career takes you, you never know. Like I said, I'm looking for
beautiful stories, human stories. Where they happen, in what
language - it's really not important to me.
Sea Shadow makes its world premiere on Wednesday,
October 19 at 9:30pm at Abu Dhabi Theater and screens again on
Thursday, October 20 at 10pm at Marina Mall's VOX Cinemas. Director
Nawaf Al-Janahi will be present at both screenings to introduce the
film and to answer audience questions afterwards.