Emirati Diabetics Share Stories for Student Film Project

Sugar, an animated documentary film about about two UAE nationals living with diabetes, is a Capstone project filmed and produced by Hasan Nabulsi, NYUAD Class of 2015.

Sugar is a short documentary film by Hasan Nabulsi, NYUAD Class of 2015, that sheds light on the growing diabetes epidemic in the UAE. Focusing on two real life characters, a young woman and older man both from the UAE, the project aims to highlight themes related to health and modernity, nostalgia, fatalism, shame and globalization. The documentary tackles the day-to-day challenges of people with diabetes and their means of coping with the illness.

The 10-minute film uses subtitles and animation to tell the stories of two vastly different people: a man who was diagnosed with diabetes 20 years ago while working on an oil field in Abu Dhabi, and a young woman who was teased so relentlessly in school for taking insulin shots that she eventually dropped out.

Nabulsi's short film was screened privately for the NYUAD community. It is a work in progress and not available to the public.

Q&A With Hasan Nabulsi

Why did you choose to focus on diabetes?

I saw a lot of interest from the government and health sector into tackling diabetes and providing health care for people who suffer from diabetes. But I was still curious to know about people's personal perspectives. For me, diabetes was reflective of a broader range of social structure and lifestyle changes because of globalization. The shift that happened post the exploration of oil was manifested in the emergence of new illnesses that people had to deal with.

How did you collect your research?

I interviewed people who had family members that were diabetic and people who were pre-diabetic; mothers of diabetic children, from different backgrounds, like locals and expats; and experts and doctors. I went to the diabetes center in Imperial College London and Khalifa Medical City. There’s also some people who do their own research here at NYU Abu Dhabi. All of these conversations helped me better understand the complications. Not everyone I interviewed was featured in the film. Many of the people I interviewed became the background research. 

Hasan Nabulsi graduated in 2015 with a BA in Film and New Media and Political Science.

What did you find out through your interviews?

There's a specific amount of stigma and shame in diabetes. One of my subjects was a girl so ashamed of her diabetes that she had to drop out of school. She’s an Emirati female and her classmates weren’t understanding of her diabetes.

She took a long time to realize that it’s not a contagious disease and there’s nothing wrong with her. For years her medication didn’t work until she found one doctor who helped her finally understand diabetes, how it works, and how she should deal with it. The psychology of it is huge. If you are not psychologically stable you are less receptive to the medication and less willing to take the medicine and make changes in your life.

The older days were different. Food was fresh. People would walk. Now, it’s the opposite. There's fast food, people are used to comfort, the mall, sitting around.

Emirati interviewed for the film

What surprised you about your research?

It became personal. My interviews brought a new experience for me because it stopped being only about the statistics, even though they are significant. It's more about the psychology of the individual. I did not have anyone in my family who was diabetic but I discovered that some of my friends have diabetes or have family members that are diabetics. So, I started to engage with them as friends and interacting with them. Diabetes is definitely universal.

What messages emerged from your research?

I want people to see that diabetes is not always black and white; its not an equation. It's not that you over consume food and become diabetic, it's more complicated than that, and people deal with it in different ways. The film focuses on the psychology of the individual and diabetes as it relates to different cultures. I found a lot of examples of people internalizing and dealing with diabetes in radically different ways, and they seem to all work. People sometimes are a bit harsh on those who have a spiritual or religious mode of dealing with diabetes; they are sometimes accused of fatalism, but for many people it works. For example, some people go to alternative medicine, like herbs, while others only believe in insulin to cure the disease.

Why did you chose animation to tell the story?

Multiple reasons. I think animation helps to simplify and make the subject more approachable. I took the story of two specific individuals and made them one collective story, so it started being about something that anyone can relate to, even outside the UAE.