I want a film to take me to another place, another point in time, allow my heart to experience something it has never felt. The emotions can arch from sadness to joy, the places from light to dark and all in between. But ultimately, a true work of art needs to fill my dreams. Shahad Ameen's short film Eye & Mermaid, which premiered at the 10th Dubai International Film Festival, did just that for me.
But Eye & Mermaid is not the light, feel-good, easy tale, that it may appear to be from the title. We read mermaids and unicorns and we think it's going to be a walk in park. At least, I did.
Ameen instead delves into the darkness of this mythological species of half-women, half-fish and in the process comes up with a film that explains today's world and our dynamics of dealing with "the Other" -- what is different from us, perfectly. Eye & Mermaid is not an easy film to watch, even if it is beautifully shot by Doha Film Institute's mentor cinematographer Thomas Hines and is part of their educational program, managed by Mahdi Ali Ali, "where we actually set up a program to make prestige short films with GCC national directors and producers" confirmed Stephen Strachan, Gulf Film Development Producer for the Doha Film Institute. The cinematic institution in Qatar helped Ameen's project from its inception.
Eye & Mermaid is difficult because of its subject matter, how it deals with the generational gap, and what it teaches us about how far still we have to travel to find a way to communicate instead of disfiguring, accept instead of attack.
There is also loads of talk these days about Saudi cinema, and how Haifaa Al Mansour's groundbreaking film Wadjda has helped to bring attention to the seventh art from a country where great creativity and a lack of theaters coexist, side by side.
I caught up with the beautiful, intelligent and well-spoken Ameen, as well as with the fascinating Strachan at DIFF and learned that a full-length version of the film is also planned, which may answer more questions, open up more important conversations.
"The Other" is something I come back to again and again, the idea that to someone in this world each one of us is the other, the unknown, the unfamiliar. Here in Dubai I may be that, you from Saudi Arabia in the US may represent "the Other". The mermaid in your film represents it so well, someone who is unlike us and before we even try to understand her, we hurt her. What are your thoughts on this idea?
Shahad Ameen: It's funny because one of the reasons, when I was younger, I wanted to make films was the idea of "OK, lets bridge gaps between the East and the West." Then I went abroad, I went to London and I lived in Spain and New York and I realized we are very much alike. Although from the outside we look different, dress differently but at the end of the day we all have families and we all love each other and we all fight and hate our parents sometimes and we love our parents sometimes. So it's like the thing that I should explore is the human element of everything. I like the idea of "the Other" because we always fear that, we fear Saudis because we don't know them and the truth is if we know them we're not going to fear them.
What did you want to show with your film?
SA: To be honest, I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I know how hard it is to be a kid there, although my family is very liberated. I was in a big city so it was different but Wadjda was so relatable to me, it's like all those fights we had in school... And so basically growing up as a little girl in Saudi Arabia specifically and the Arab world in general is really hard, because even though you travel and your friends are in a different kind of community, the whole community views you as "the Other". I think the point of my story is that she's different and I always do that, even in my last film, I like to explore girls who are different. Who think outside of the box and want to be special in their society.
What appealed to you, Stephen, about this project?
Stephen Strachan: We opened up submissions in January of 2013 and Shahad's film was one of the first that came through, and it was the first draft, written in Arabic, just a script and it was quite different from the end result, it still had mermaids, it still had the little girl and then jumped to her as a young woman... But it was absolutely magical. It was almost as if she woke up from a dream and just wrote it down. We were really impressed, really touched, my background is in physical producing and I thought this was something we could actually do.
And what is Doha Film Institute's involvement in the film?
SS: We financed the film completely, we put 50,000 [Qatari] Riyals into art, costumes, catering, all that sort of things. From development all the way to post-production. We also put in mentors, so Shahad had a director mentor. And we also put in a very strong technical crew as well. From Doha Film Institute and internationally. Also we wanted to add that extra creativity by bringing in the mentors. Post productions mentors as well as her cinematographer, Thomas Hines.
Back to you Shahad, what was your experience like with Doha Film Institute?
SA: My experience was fantastic! I had no plans of what I was doing next and this was a very nice surprise. I had all of these great people working on my film and usually we'd work with no budget, with my friends... This way you have everything prepared, with great mentors and a great crew. That's why the film looks great because it had great people working on it.
And Stephen, why premiere Eye & Mermaid at DIFF and what are the upcoming plans for the film?
SS: We felt DIFF would be a great platform for it. The film will be shown in our Qumra Doha Film Festival [for first and second time filmmakers] in March 2014 as well. And the Gulf Film Festival probably.
Image courtesy of the Dubai International Film Festival, used with permission