This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Maitham Al Musawi is a rarity in Oman. In addition to being an orthopedic surgeon, he is an award winning independent filmmaker. His day job and experience in local hospitals constantly inspire him to tell untold stories through film: “Living with Thalassemia” is a short documentary about a fellow doctor’s struggle with disease; “Raneen” – winner of the Special Jury Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival – tells the story of an abandoned boy who befriends a patient in critical condition. Maitham frequently works with children in his films because, in his words, “kids are the purest form of emotion,” and therefore can relay “messages about a whole community.” In “Crossing,” he uses magical realism to tell a story about a young boy determined to swing to the heavens. His most recent film, “Popcorn,” follows an individual’s life beginning with the Omani tradition of the hol hol (the first birthday).
Oman’s small and sparse film industry means local filmmakers like Maitham are often obliged either to self-produce their projects or look to other Gulf countries for support. While film production saw an increase among Omani youth in 2012-13, it has slumped over the past few years due to the cancellation of regional film festivals. Further, the ongoing oil crisis in the Gulf has tightened government expenditure on art programs. Speaking with AGSIW, Maitham discusses the implications of these trends, the difficulty of self-producing movies in the absence of a solid film industry, and his sources of inspiration and passion for storytelling.
AGSIW: Tell us how you got into filmmaking.
Maitham: I wasn’t brought up to be a filmmaker; I had a very normal childhood in Oman. In high school I got into photography and I was documenting events and family occasions. After a while, I began to feel that a picture didn’t express as much as I wanted. The next logical step for me was films – moving pictures. I started making videos on YouTube that became popular locally and one of the videos got the attention of a filmmaker in Oman. He took me in, taught me how to write a script, and suggested I make something for a film festival.
AGSIW: Do you have a message or a goal in making films?
Maitham: To me, filmmaking is a way of telling stories. In my career in medicine, I see a lot of things nobody talks about. One of my first films talks about the story of a little boy who was abandoned by his family and thrown into a hospital. It is based off my experience in medical school; we had a kid who lived in our ward for two to three years until he was finally taken to an orphanage. In that film, I wanted to shed light on an issue that is a big taboo: Once a month in Oman, we find a baby in the dumpster or near the hospital. In the stories I tell, the message is very subtle – I am more into the artistic side of filmmaking, especially the cinematography. I touch on every aspect of filmmaking: I write, direct, I act sometimes; I shoot and edit the film myself. I’m a one-man show often; that is how I am able to make films.
AGSIW: How do you try to portray Oman’s nature and culture in your films?
Maitham: When I see other Omani films, they all look very similar: They are all filmed in the same village, with the same people. Perhaps the other filmmakers feel an obligation to show Omani heritage and culture. Personally, I feel I should go down a different route, and do my own thing. Depending on the story, I might show some culture but it’s not a must. When all Omani films look the same, I think it kind of [perpetuates] a stereotype of Omanis as bedouins and as though we still ride camels and live in tents. I’ve internalized this criticism and most of my films are set in more modern parts of Oman.
AGSIW: Tell us about the local film scene in Oman.
Maitham: Not too much is happening and the number of Omani films has dwindled in the past two years. Other than media students submitting final projects to festivals, there are perhaps one to two films per year being made. We have an Omani Cinema Association but nothing is really happening. We don’t have any specialized film schools and we don’t have support or interest from any government entity in filmmaking. We do have a local film festival but it doesn’t do much for the local scene because it is focused on bringing international, commercial films – not the artistic, independent films. Often what happens is that someone will make a film, it will get to a festival, and they win an award. They later set up a production company and go commercial because independent filmmaking isn’t profitable.
AGSIW: Do local filmmakers have access to institutional support?
Maitham: There is very little. Especially since the recent oil crisis, the government’s focus is not on artistic events; they have pulled out and are focusing on essentials. The Omani Cinema Association gets some support from the Ministry of Heritage. Oman TV had a small fund for scripts but it stopped … nothing sustainable. Overall Oman isn’t the best place for a filmmaker, which is why I haven’t left medicine to do this full time. Eventually I’ll get there, but until I can find support I won’t be able to.
AGSIW: You mentioned things got worse recently. What happened in the past two years that impacted Oman’s film output?
Maitham: Two major film festivals held locally in the Gulf were canceled in 2014: the Gulf Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. These two accepted and showcased the most Khaleeji (Gulf) films. This is where I started and where all the Gulf filmmakers met. I went to workshops, met with other filmmakers at these festivals, and watched their movies. The experience helped me move from making YouTube videos to films. These two film festivals were not making much money; they were there to serve the local cinema scene. They were doing a good job – so many people were making films every year so they could carry them to those festivals, meet other filmmakers, and learn from them. Since they stopped, we only have the Dubai Film Festival. Although it’s huge, for a while it didn’t take as many Khaleeji films as the others; its focus has been more international. This led to a drop in the outcome of films from Oman and even from the Gulf in general. If filmmakers don’t have a space to show their films then why make them?
AGSIW: How has Dubai’s scene and its famous festival affected the Omani film scene?
Maitham: Dubai started a filmmaking movement that serves the whole Middle East, which is really great, but that can also make it a bit difficult for us in the Gulf. If you look at Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, they are years ahead of us in filmmaking and have been doing this since the 50s or 60s. Khaleejis started in the early 2000s. When you compare a film coming from there to here, there is a huge production value difference. We are pitted against these films now, whereas before when we had the Gulf Film Festival and Abu Dhabi Film Festival, we were competing with each other. It has been difficult for the past two years [without those two festivals] but recently the Gulf Film Festival sort of merged with the Dubai Film Festival so we now have a section for our films.
AGSIW: Any upcoming projects we can look forward to?
Maitham: My next project talks about an issue that is very close to my heart: racism in the Gulf. I developed a story called “A Piece of Land.” It’s about an Indian man who spent his whole life in Oman and he plays cricket with his co-workers on a field. Some mischievous Omani kids come to the field one day and take over the field to play football; they tell him “Go back to your country, this is our land.” It’s comedic but has an underlying issue: how these Indian men, even though they are part of this country and have lived here their whole lives, they don’t feel like they belong because of the way we treat them. The film has received funding from the Dubai International Film Festival and it will be screened there in December.
To view Maitham Al Musawi’s short videos and film trailers, check out his YouTube page.
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