'Nearby Sky': Dubai Review

Nearby Sky Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Dubai International Film Festival

Nearby Sky Still - H 2014

The portrait of a fascinating lady of the desert is exoticism at it best

A Bedouin camel owner becomes a feminist heroine in an affectionate, offbeat doc

Any film that can make camels sexy should pique audiences' curiosity, and in the Emirati documentary Nearby Sky they are shampooed, combed and hand-fed before being led off to languidly compete at camel beauty pageants. But it is their sassy Bedouin owner, Fatima Ali Al Hameli, who holds center stage and embodies the spirit of the desert. Steeped in camel lore since she was a child, she makes a touching, often jaw-dropping heroine with a mind of a own. One can only wish the film went a bit farther in unveiling her worldview and intimate feelings instead of leaving viewers hankering to know more. In any case, the combo of feminism and exoticism, tinged with affectionate irony, should lead it to lush festival oases.

As in her well-known Hamama about an elderly woman healer, Emirati documaker Nujoom Alghanem has a good time overturning stereotypes and expectations about who is behind the leather face mask which covers the eyebrows and upper lip. The style is said to have originated with nomadic tribes and Fatima sports it with natural flair. Only in the first shot does she remove it for Alghanem's camera, in front of a very theatrical mirror, revealing a woman who is perhaps less cocky and sure of herself than the film makes her out to be.

"Amazing and strange" is the way the all-male denizens of the camel world describe this tough, outspoken, middle-aged lady with gnarled, hennaed hands and a loud voice that carries a long way. Now that her husband is dead and her sons have grown into sturdy men, her childhood passion for single-humped Arabian dromedaries has blossomed into a profession. With her faithful Sudanese trainer, she raises the animals to compete not in races, but in beauty contests. The criteria by which a group of finalists is chosen from hundreds of humped hopefuls is not really clear, nor does it need to be. The point is that Fatima's camels never, ever get selected for the finals.

Heartbroken after each turndown, she tells anyone within earshot that it is because she is a woman — the only woman, in fact, visible in the whole dusty pageant. Everyone knows her and many laugh at her aspirations, which they feel are not becoming for her one of her gender. Insiders knowingly concur that she should delegate a man to represent her stable. Her sons are a little uncertain, but "let her" have her little hobby. One has the feeling that if they tried to stop the determined old lady all hell would break out.

For a woman married at 15 and illiterate, Fatima has done well for herself. She is driven around in a late-model pickup and must be rich, considering that a camel can cost upwards of $50,000. There is a romantic interlude in which she lovingly cleans her prize camel with $120 shampoo from Germany. Still it would have been satisfying to go deeper into her family life, past the tall tales and mythic dimension in which she positions herself.

Benjamin Pritchard's photography captures a monocolor world of swirling sand and dust, in which Fatima can embrace her camels or a sand dune with ecstatic love.

Production company: Nahar Productions
Director, Screenwriter: Nujoom Alghanem
Producer: Nujoom Alghanem
Director of photography: Benjamin Pritchard
Editor: Anne De Morant

Music: Marwan Abado
No rating, 85 minutes