The annual Abu Dhabi Film Festival is right around the corner. Starting on October 23, participants will attend film screenings and take part in a wide range of special events, including workshops and talks with directors. This year, a special program titled From New York to Abu Dhabi: a program by NYU Filmmakers will feature the films of three NYU community members: Of Many, a documentary short by Linda Mills; Watermark, a narrative short by Gail Segal; and Return to the Sea, a narrative short by Alexis Gambis. Salaam caught up with the three directors to learn more about their films.
Director (Of Many)
Linda Mills, vice chancellor for Global Programs and University Life at NYU New York and associate vice chancellor for Admissions and Financial Support at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Set against the dramatic backdrop of violence in the Middle East and the tension between Jewish and Muslim students on college campuses, Of Many focuses on the surprising and transformative relationship between an orthodox rabbi and an imam, who serve as university chaplains in New York City. Through a series of voyages to communities struck by catastrophe, we witness young religious Jews and Muslims working together and overcoming long-standing divides. Timely and humorous, this short documentary offers an inspiring and hopeful narrative in the face of a seemingly irreconcilable conflict. Watch Of Many's trailer here.
What inspired this film?
The film, Of Many, grew out of the remarkable story of a unique and, to many, surprising friendship between a rabbi, Yehuda Sarna, and an imam, Khalid Latif. As Chelsea Clinton (the film's executive producer) and I watched these chaplains work with students at NYU, we were convinced that colleges worldwide could become catalysts for multifaith collaboration, providing the requisite safe spaces where Muslims and Jews could understand each other, work together, and even position the next generation of religious leaders.
How did you capture the story of these two characters?
Chelsea and I worked to capture Khalid's and Yehuda’s personal stories and their larger story, partly through the young people they have inspired. It is obvious to us that the deep misunderstandings and conflicts that too often characterize interactions between religious communities on college campuses can only be addressed by creating a different kind of atmosphere — one that not only respects differences between religions, but also appreciates and celebrates the similarities.
Gail Segal, NYU New York associate Arts professor.
Three French siblings clash over real estate after the death of their father; only in this case, the real estate is memory. Each wants the last word in how the father is remembered. During a road trip to the Empty Quarter of the UAE, tensions rise as insults are exchanged, car keys are misplaced, and the three are nearly lost in the desert.
They have come from Paris to explore the world of their late father, a scientist who worked in the region. In the oasis town of Liwa, they meet the beautiful Noor, their father's research assistant. She unveils a father they barely recognize and reveals her knowledge of personal moments in each of their lives. Her memories overturn each of their claims, leaving them land-locked with their most precious legacy: one another.
Why did you create this film?
For as long as I can remember, "place" has been at the heart of my work in film. Whether the Deep American South, hill towns in Turkey, or the Jewish ghettos of early-20th-century New York City, place drives the need to tell these stories as much as character.
When I traveled for the first time to the UAE in 2012, I was certain that I wanted to set a story in this landscape — a narrative film — a story of siblings. An NYUAD research grant made this a real possibility. In May of 2013, my 92-year-old mother passed away. As I experienced, first hand, the territorial nature of my own remembering, the story began to take its shape: three siblings clashing over the real estate of memory after the death of their father.
The beauty of the UAE desert is not just its contours and colors, or its vastness, but also the way it plants you so firmly in the present. As the siblings travel deeper into the desert, the hold of memory loosens — until they meet the beautiful Noor, the father’s research assistant, who overthrows with her own memories any last remnant of their claims.
What were some of the challenges you faced making this film?
One local challenge had to do with finding an Emirati woman over the age of 40 to play the role of Noor. This was tough, but through suggestions I managed to find a non-actor, Sallama Bu-Haydar. Sallama is actually from Lebanon, but has been living in the UAE for many years. When she and I met, I knew instantly she was Noor. I can't imagine the film without her particular presence.
Navigating the permits and logistics of a foreign country was certainly challenging too. But thankfully, I had a lot of support from NYUAD staff, colleagues, and my crew, many of whom are NYUAD film students.
Director (Return to the Sea)
Alexis Gambis, NYU Abu Dhabi visiting assistant professor of Biology and Film and New Media.
After so many years in a dormant state, a young man sets off on a long and perilous yet healing journey from the mountain to the sea, where he conducts his most ambitious symphony piece ever undertaken. This is the journey through the young man's brain waking up and recovering the ability to detect motion.
As a scientist/filmmaker, what made you shoot this film?
I am interested in exploring scientific issues and advances through personal stories with a cultural vantage point. I was drawn to these themes after visiting an NYU Abu Dhabi research center for language. I then heard about recent discoveries that were made where they were able to map the regions of the brain that control movement and motion, and how preliminary studies showed paralyzed individuals regaining the ability to move objects via brain mapping. All of these, of course, intertwined with my experience living and teaching at NYUAD.
Where was the film shot in the UAE and why did you pick this location?
As well as shooting in NYUAD's research laboratories, I shot in Ras al-Khamiah's "Al Hamra" ghost town. This location symbolized the notion of a place that had been deserted and wounded and could be a metaphorical representation of my hero's brain.
The program will be screened on Sunday, October 26, at 6pm in Vox Cinemas at Marina Mall.