Amal: Film Review

The struggles of an expat in Abu Dhabi come to life in this award-winning Emirati doc.

The award-winning documentary from director Nujoom Al Ghanem centers on the professional and personal struggles of a Syrian actress who has chosen to immigrate to Abu Dhabi.

Amal by Emirati documaker Nujoom Al Ghanem takes some time to find its footing, but eventually succeeds in getting the viewer involved in the professional and personal struggles of a Syrian actress who has chosen to immigrate to Abu Dhabi. The film has a surprising frankness in discussing the outsider status that dogs foreign residents in the wealthy Emirate, even a middle class émigré like Amal Hawijeh. Her warm, free-flowing spirit lifts the topic out of sociology into an emotional realm where festival viewers in particular should find common ground.  The film won the Muhr Emirati main award at the Dubai Film Festival.

Though it’s a bit of a thin subject for a feature length film, Al Ghanem is clever about dosing out info on the protag’s background a drop at a time.  She’s introduced as the easy-going, 40-something editor of an online childrens’ magazine; her passion for avant-guarde theater and the fact that she’s well-known in her native Syria is not immediately unveiled. She moved to Abu Dhabi in 2003 after being recruited as the star of an Emirati TV show for kids, then found herself out of work but still yearning to realize her dreams of art and culture that brought her there in the first place.

Ironically, while local authorities do their best to contrast the image of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as heartless, soulless cities of soaring glass and steel, Amal candidly reveals how difficult the place really is to penetrate on a human level.  What could have been a simple tourism film produced by the Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation turns into a far more ambiguous portrait of a sunny, rich, futuristic world where opportunities abound but where foreigners are largely excluded from local social life. 

Amal herself comes across as a terrific person anyone would like to spend quality time with. Her ironic, introspective voice-over narrates the entire film, describing how she feels like “a transient passer-by in other’s lives.” She remarks on the lack of cultural and media freedom, but underlines her physical freedom as a foreign woman in the Emirates.  It comes as a surprise to find out she has a Palestinian-Syrian husband in Greece who cares for her and who she sees off and on. With great hesitation, she contemplates returning to Syria, and the last scenes carry a whiff of current events and the Arab Spring.

Venue: Dubai Film Festival (Muhr Emirati competition)
Production company: Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation in association with Nahar Productions
Director: Nujoom Al Ghanem
Screenwriters: Nujoom Al Ghanem, Amal Hawijeh
Producer: Nujoom Al Ghanem, Muna Al Ghanem
Director of photography: Majdi Merza
Editor: Fadi Haddad
Music: Mehdi Tolouei
Sales Agent: Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation
No rating, 88 minutes