As a child, I wanted to be a writer. My mom gave me a love of words — she was a poet though she never pursued it. We’d trade books, primarily crime novels, back and forth, and discuss them at length. She gave me The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy (which is still my favorite book) and I tried to write stories in Roy’s style. My stories weren’t very good! But my love of words took me to London where I studied English Literature at King’s College London.
When I arrived in London, I was completely lost. I started searching for a tribe and unexpectedly found it in my university’s theatre society. I had never even seen a play. Theatre was nonexistent in the UAE and all I had seen were crude, garish high school musicals. One of the first plays I saw was Red written by John Logan, and it changed my life. Instantly, I decided that I wanted to be a theatre-maker. I threw myself into the student theatre world and within a year I was directing plays and interning with wonderful theatre directors.
After graduating, I returned to the UAE, hoping to find the same support at home, but the dearth of an art world or theatre scene startled me. A traveling short play festival had come to Dubai, and I tried to get involved. But the plays chosen were safe, orthodox and restrictive. I realized that even though I loved theatre, it simply didn’t have the same authority that film had in the UAE. I wanted to tell stories that pierced the echo chamber, stories that were dissenting, dangerous and open-minded, but theatre just wasn’t the appropriate medium for this. The UAE has strict censorship and blasphemy laws. Plays need physical, tangible, private or public spaces. This means they can be shut down, the lights can be turned off, the audience can be kicked out, the venue can be locked up. But in the UAE, because of the internet, films have always found a way to subvert the public’s consciousness.
I had almost completed my application for Columbia’s MFA theatre program, and then changed my mind at the last minute and applied for the MFA film program instead. This was the beginning of my career. I still adore theatre and would love to return to the medium, but I haven’t regretted changing my mind even once.
You received your BA from King’s College London before getting your MFA at Columbia University. Do you feel that your filmmaking blends influences from various cultures and if so, how does that hybridity enrich your work?
Growing up in the UAE was surreal. The landscape changed so radically in my lifetime — when I was a child it was just sweeping desert and now it is filled with skyscrapers, malls, new developments, sports stadiums, tourist destinations, etc. This gave me a sense of permanent impermanence. Like I never really belonged to something tangible and unmoving. Like I was untethered from any group or community. This alone-ness haunted me in my childhood, but once I moved to London, I realized that it had also given me this incredible gift of adaptability. I have been able to quickly attune to the places I have lived. I can pick up on the cadence of new cultures, new peoples, new languages, and make a home for myself wherever I go. Because of this, I think my work has become a pastiche of memory and life and color. It’s given me a gaze that I hope is far-reaching, that can be intimate but also removed, that is not an artifact of any region or country.
You have been extremely successful as a writer and director, being the first filmmaker from the United Arab Emirates to screen your work screen at Sundance, BFI London, and Chicago International. What advice can you give to other women filmmakers of color who are also hoping to have their work screen at premiere film festivals?
Make films that you want to make, not what’s expected of you, not what others are making, and not what you think the market wants right now. Many filmmakers strategize — they observe trends and make films that they feel will cater to certain festivals at certain times. It can be tempting to do this, and even smart to do this, but never let that dictate what stories you should or want to tell.
Filmmaking can be expensive, and if you don’t have access to private or public funding, it can be disheartening to watch fellow filmmakers be able to spend thousands on their films. It is unfair that short films made for less than $100 are competing with short films made for more than $50,000 at festivals. Money can certainly get you a lot, but it can’t buy imagination, artistry, hard work, and perseverance (remember that money can sometimes be used to mask poor storytelling). Use this financial constraint to your advantage. Be resourceful and learn to make something out of nothing. I have made my films with tiny, humble budgets, and they have played side by side with big-budget films at some of the most prestigious festivals in the world.
Do you think that your success may inspire other filmmakers, in particular women, back at home?
That is my hope. When I was growing up, I didn’t have anyone to be my guide — someone who had a clear trajectory that I could follow. I went into this blind because there was no one in the UAE who had done it before me. I hope that my journey can be a model for young women in the UAE who also want to be storytellers. More than anything, I hope they can see that filmmaking isn’t just for people (mostly men) far off in the West somewhere. It can be for them, too.
In your newest film How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom, you tell the story of three sisters whose mother is training them to enter the world of beauty pageants like she once did. What gave you the idea to make the film and how did you select the excellent actors you feature in it?
I have always been spellbound by the beauty pageant world. There is something captivating but utterly poisonous about the way young girls have their bodies paraded, decorated, restricted, broken, and bent out of shape. I wanted to explore this discordant world that sexualizes young girls but also represses their sexuality and impedes their growth. The mother character in my film doesn’t want her daughters to grow up. She paralyzes them in this precarious place between girlhood and womanhood. She makes them watch videos of herself as a young beauty pageant princess and we get the sense that this is something she does over and over again. This is a family that is stuck in amber, in some in-between place, unable to move forward.
The film began with this concept more than anything else. I never really wrote a proper script. Most of the film was improvised during rehearsal with my wonderful actors. My protagonist, Regina Coyle, is a friend of mine. She is extremely talented and has startling grey eyes that can stop you in your tracks. My younger two actors, Sasha Rubanov and Audrey Grace Marshall (my babies!), I found through an open casting call. Finding them was like finding gold! They are both so spontaneous and vivacious, completely unpredictable but in the most exhilarating way. I was very blessed to work with all of them.
Not only did How to Make a Bomb address gender but it also explored patriotism, as the sisters danced wearing American flags. How do you see gender and patriotism working together in today’s society?
Patriotism is seductive. Like the beauty pageant world, it can be alluring but sometimes toxic. On one hand, I long for and admire that sense of belonging and stability because it’s something I’ve never had; on the other, I worry that it keeps people, particularly women, tied to their flock. I’m not speaking only about the right, but also about the left. I want women to follow their own ideologies, whether it is conservative or liberal, and for others to respect their decisions. It bothers me that women on the left end of the spectrum are called social justice warriors just as much as it bothers me that women on the right end of the spectrum are accused of betraying their own. Women do not need to be mollycoddled and infantilized. We can make up our own minds, we can agree, disagree, dissent, evolve, change our minds and change them again, and we should be able to do this without reproach. I’ve tried to challenge this overprotection and babying of women in my film – this bad habit of women policing women, this ‘us and them’ culture that keeps everyone in their place. We should challenge each other and debate each other, but also support each other and allow each other to grow.
I really enjoyed the black and white footage you used in the film. How does the starkness of black and white help you tell this story?
Curiously, all my work thus far has been black and white. Even when I was directing theatre, my sets and costumes were black, white, and grey. Many years ago, after watching one of my plays, my boss asked me if I was colorblind. I thought it was absurd to suggest that, but then when I tried to renew my driver’s license, I failed the color blindness test! It turns out that I am mildly colorblind. I wonder if this why I feel safer in greyscale. Perhaps I don’t trust my eyes and worry that I am not seeing the world as it is. I think this may have something to do with why the film is black and white, but I also feel it works well for this story because it contains the world in a time capsule, where everyone looks back but never forward, everything stays the same, and the day repeats over and over again.
Do you have any new projects in the works? Where can we see your work right now?
I recently co-wrote a short film with my partner Sean Robert Dunn, supported by the Scottish Film and Talent Network. We are in post-production now, and I’m so excited about the film’s future. I’m also developing my feature screenplay, a film that confronts the women’s issues that have meant the most to me and have framed all my work thus far. My most recent film, How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom, will be up on Vimeo soon, but in the meantime you can have a look at my projects on my website.