The 2016 Dubai International Film Festival came to a close on Wednesday night, with Emirati filmmaker and director Abdulla Al Kaabi taking home the “Best Emirati Feature” award for his envelope-pushing drama Only Men Go to the Grave. “I feel over the moon,” he exclaims in conversation with Vogue Arabia following his big win.
When asked who he would like to thank, the filmmaker didn’t hesitate to answer: “My father is the first person, of course.” He also credits the film’s producer Mahoutforoush Farshad for translating the film from paper and onto the big screen: “He really believed in me, and without him, none of this would be possible.”
What would have happened had he not won the award? “I would have been equally as overjoyed had another filmmaker won,” he reveals, adding, “This award is a triumph for all Arab filmmakers and directors who sacrifice their health, time and peace of mind for their cinematic projects.”
Only Men Go to the Grave made its world premiere on December 10 at the palm tree-lined Madinat Jumeirah Complex. The film, the title of which explores the Islamic tradition that only men can attend burials, revolves around three Khaleeji women who scramble to uncover buried family tensions after their blind mother suddenly dies in the midst of revealing a secret.
Although the movie features culturally-sensitive subjects that may be deemed taboo in the region, Al Kaabi believes this has worked in his advantage. “I think we won the prize because we were touching on heavy issues and themes in a very gentle way, in order to open a dialogue that makes everyone feel comfortable,” he explains.
His triumph hardly comes as a surprise. Following the auteur’s acclaimed short film The Philosopher in 2010, his award-winning film was highly-anticipated at this year’s festival. The feature film, which was intended to show last year, was mysteriously pulled by Al Kaabi only days before the event for unknown reasons, causing a ripple of confusion amongst show-goers and organizers.
It was later revealed that Al Kaabi pulled the plug in 2015 because he didn’t believe it was completely ready. Indeed, there were plenty of “ups and downs,” in his own words. The film was shot entirely in Iran over the last five years due to financial constraints. In an interview with Gulf News, the director revealed that the project was self-funded and described trying to get the film financed as a “disaster.” Al Kaabi, who self-funds all of his projects, explains: “It’s difficult to find a financier in the region as we don’t have that cinema culture.” However, the filmmaker also notes that the region is taking baby steps towards the right direction. “The Dubai International Film Festival is great because for seven days, it brings all the filmmakers together and honors the craft; this is something that we need for 365 days of the year,” he states.
While filming the project, the filmmaker hit a further obstacle––Al Kaabi lost a very dear friend of his in a tragic accident, a moment that he will never forget. “This film is dedicated to her. She saw it three days before she passed away, and she was so proud of me. That will stick with me forever,” he recounts.
Al Kaabi, who obtained his Master’s degree in filmmaking in Paris in 2009, has plans to head back to France in May for the annual Cannes Film Festival. As for what’s next for him, he says, “I have two projects in the bag that will be revealed very soon, and Vogue Arabia will be the first to know.”