In a region where shortage of talent, vision and insight has never been an issue, there remains a shortage of authentic Arab cinematic voices. However, the landscape of Arab cinema is changing, and leading that change are films like "Going to Heaven," which not only speak for the Arab experience, but the human experience.
The film, which premiered at the 2015 Dubai International Film Festival and won its Muhr Emirati Award for best feature film, tells the heartwarming story of a young boy whose unspoiled connection to his estranged grandmother helps him make sense of his troubled world.
In an incredible cross-country journey, 11-year old Sultan, alongside his best friend Saud, travels hundreds of kilometers in the United Arab Emirates from emirate to emirate to find his grandmother and ultimately, himself.
As a film that compares the pursuit of a grandmother's love to the pursuit of heaven, "Going to Heaven" is inherently Arab in its portrayal of the sanctity of family. And in its portrayal of how our modern world threatens that sanctity, the film becomes universal.
It is a balance that the film's award-winning Emirati writer and director Saeed Salmeen Al-Murry made a priority.
"The biggest inspiration for the film was from the heart of UAE society and the Gulf. I am especially passionate about our culture so it made it a lot easier to write the script," Murry told StepFeed.
"The film shows the traditions of an Emirati household including the role of the grandparents, a rare sight as they do not often leave the home. It also shows the spirit and resilience of the Emirati people through Sultan’s courage and persistence to find his grandmother at any length."
Bringing that persistence to the screen was especially important to the main message of the film, which Murry says centers on the "loss of traditional communication and human interaction in favor of new technology."
"The film highlights a challenge we are facing in the community, which is a lack of human interaction between family members. The control of technology on our lives is becoming so apparent, from smartphones to social media, and so I felt like it was important to tell this story."
"Going to Heaven," like the rest of Murry's acclaimed works, is a refreshing reminder of what Arab cinema can achieve.
The film was backed by the Support Arab Cinema campaign and co-produced by the UAE entities Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Cine Vision Art Production, which are now releasing it to the public. The film will open on Apr. 28 in UAE cinemas, including Star Bawadi Cinema in Al-Ain and Vox Cinemas in Dubai, Fujairah and Abu-Dhbai.
In addition, it features an all Emirati cast and crew and was filmed entirely in the UAE, one of the main factors that contributed to its authenticity. Shot mainly outdoors in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Fujairah, the film showcases the diversity in the UAE's landscape and a different side to a country often stereotyped by its soaring skyscrapers.
Murry, who has been called "the ambassador of Emirati cinema," takes pride in his passion for creating films that are consistently representative of Arab identity and culture, which he believes is very important.
"Not only are Arab films of high-quality, but they are representative of the region, they tell stories from our culture without the negative stereotypes we often see in Western media," he said. "It is important for us to tell these stories so that the world gets a true idea of Arab life and Arab people feel accurately represented."
Murry added that it is often the audience itself that hinders the progress of Arab cinema, because they're not used to the idea of watching an all-Arab film.
"Arab audiences don’t have to be convinced to watch commercial films from big studios with big-name actors, however local films have a much harder job attracting them to the cinema. We have to focus hard on factors like a good story, high quality production and a professional cast."
That's why to Murry, the solution to this problem must lie in raising awareness about why the progress of Arab cinema matters in the first place.
"Half the battle in building an Arab film industry is educating the public about Arabic films and how important it is to support these films."