This spring my students have won several awards for their films—-national awards, not international, but we haven’t tried that yet. It’s my first year teaching them, and it’s the first year they make short narrative films and documentaries that are not tour guides to the UAE. The results, good and bad, have been a surprise to both me and them. The students at Zayed University are all female, all UAE nationals, all bilingual (English and Arabic) and for the most part between 18-24 years old. The country doesn’t really have a film industry yet, although with a billion dollar fund and several eager producers in the making, that is sure to happen.
What will they make films about? Well, if my students are the futu
re, a major theme is going to be the battle between tradition and globalization, a theme that runs through most of their films, not to mention the national discourse. The films that have won some of them accolades this year are about karak tea (an Indian brew that is a integral part of Emirati daily life), a young Brit discovering he was adopted at birth and is really a rich Emirati, and a recreated story about the chickpea seller who started the UAE’s first newspaper. Perhaps the most disturbing one for me to watch was the blow-by-blow filming of a sheep slaughter–the cinematography was so good, so graphic, it was nearly impossible to watch (“How are you going to grade us, Miss, if you don’t open your eyes?” “It’s okay, Miss, it’s halal”)
They script, shoot, and edit their own work. Even when the work falls short of what they had hoped for, I find myself proud of them. It doesn’t always make up for the constant Blackberrying, even in class, the idea that time and deadlines are fluid, and other frustrating combinations of things unique to the Middle East and their generation. Nor does it always cover for the lack of knowledge and interest they sometimes have in the world outside, like when they don’t know what apartheid means or who Lawrence of Arabia was. But then the other day, a few of them looked at me blankly when I mentioned Martin Luther King. There was no hiding my disappointment in the silence. Then one of them beamed, “Wait, I know, I know…the I have a dream guy.” And so do they.