Interviewed by Aliyah Alawadhi
Under the lens this week is emerging Emirati filmmaker, Sarra’a Abdulaziz. Hailing from Ras Al Khaima, she holds a BA in Visual Communications from Zayed University and is currently pursuing a master’s in Film Directing & Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of Arts.
A seasoned filmmaker and photographer, her film ‘Open Wound’, a drama following the molestation of a young boxer by her own uncle, was one of the shorts nominated for the Muhr Awards at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2015. Sarra’a has also been lauded for her photography and illustrative work, having been exhibited at the SIKKA art fair, the Pro Art Gallery and the Sharjah Art Foundation. She is currently working on a short film in Ras Al Khaima concerning themes of coming of age, childhood, and friendships.
Sarra’a’s work deals with the idea of struggling and although many of her pieces are inherently defined by such within the context of femininity, she uses a voice that addresses the human condition as whole; the origins of loneliness, the coping methods of abuse and limitation and how pain becomes strength with the passage of time. By asking difficult questions through her art, the process of creation allows her to dissect these ideas and find, if not a solution, a comfort in understanding the nuances of the question itself. Despite the serious themes, her work is neither bombastic nor vehemently confrontational, but is quiet and subdued in a manner that pulls the viewer in with its aesthetic beauty, but leaves them asking questions, creating an inner dialogue on questions of mental health, sexual abuse and the plight of women in the Arab world.
Sarra'a's piece, 'A Women Called Freedom' is featured in our book, 'In The Middle of it All'. available to purchase through our website shop.
You come from Ras Al Khaima, a small Northern Emirate, relatively far away from the hustle and bustle of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Would you say your hometown or upbringing had any influence on you artistically?
There is a lot I can say about my Ras Al Khaima; It has and always will leave a deep impact on the way I express my art. Growing up in a place where I had to create my own entertainment really expanded my imagination; usually being away from the noise of the city provides me with enough peace to day dream, imagine and create! It’s perfect for the kind of art practices that require silence and isolation.
You started writing at a young age, can you tell us about your early stories and how that period inspired you to pursue storytelling? And were you personally inspired by any specific writers or literature?
My relationship with writing started when I experienced loneliness for the first time. I remember a situation in which I was getting bullied by my former friends in elementary school. I decided to write about that experience in my diary to feel like I was talking to a friend, someone who was listening. Since then I never stopped writing down my feelings and thoughts.
Unfortunately, I didn’t grow up reading many books. I personally struggled with learning how to read and write in school which made me turn to comics, cartoons, and films. Visuals helped me a lot; I remember how Majid magazine encouraged me to read more.
My science teacher, Ibtisam, was also a big inspiration to my storytelling. She saw my love for acting and asked me to write my own dialogue for a play. Since then I decided to delve more into play-based scriptwriting and that expanded into stories and film scripts.
You hold a degree in visual communications, and you decided to pursue a Masters in film writing and directing. Where did the interest in filmmaking and directing arise? And do you think your visual communications studies benefited you when it came to actually making films?
I’ve wanted to make films since I was around 11 or 12 years old; I saw how films could speak to people and they made me feel less alone so, I wanted to make other people feel less alone with my own films. The dream expanded as I got older and I saw myself unable to be happy without it. When I was studying visual communications, the program wasn’t prepared to support fictional filmmaking. So although I had a rich undergrad experience with so many of the basic art techniques being taught, I didn’t know how to make films. As a middle class woman, it was also difficult to simply fund my own films or get funds with no experience, so it wasn’t enough, I had to go to grad school and continue learning!
Your premiere film ‘Open Wound’ covered quite a sensitive subject matter, where did the stimulus for that idea come from? And what are your thoughts on how that issue is currently perceived in Arab society?
‘Open Wound’ came from the idea of examining how people carry pain and the formative nature of emotional scars and how they shape people. In my opinion, the past is not something you can undo, but you can transform hurt over time into something that gives you strength.
For me, personally, sexual harassment and rape are my biggest fears. In fact, I’m sure it’s many women’s fears; we hear about victims of rape and sexual harassment everyday, but then we must remember that they don’t appear and disappear like a media trend, they’re still out there navigating life and following their dreams. This film was dedicated to them.
I think what Arab society needs is to talk about it more, make it a conversation, normalize discussing the issue and transforming the taboo into not speaking up about it or being enraged about it.
You made ‘Open Wound’ in New York, during your first year. How did it feel handling such a personal and intimate story in such a foreign environment?
I was highly supported in the development process and felt very free to express myself in the production. However, it was hard for me to find the Arab actors I wanted, needed, to make the film the closest possible mirroring of my own culture. In fact, making any film in a foreign country can be extra hard because of the resources you have or lack thereof, but it was rewarding; it helped my ability to work with what I had, under limited time and limited means.
This theme of women overcoming hardships seems to carry over in your physical artworks. Banat Collective chose your photographic series, ‘A Woman Called Freedom’ to be featured in our first publication, ‘In the Middle of it All’. Though very beautiful aesthetically, it seems to have a looming sense of restriction and pessimism. What can you tell us about the story behind the work?
I don’t think about the meanings beforehand. I don’t start out conceptually; my process is just the burst of emotion and action in that moment and later, I examine the connotations – why was I feeling this? What does this say about me?
When I made this particular series, I was in a deeply frustrated mindset. I felt like I wanted to be out of my own skin; I wanted to express something deep inside of me and wanted to express it now, so it made sense to me to use a simple medium, like a scanner. Just to squeeze and contort my face, to make it so I couldn’t breathe, to look like someone who exists and is free physically yet trapped in other ways. In my head, it was like something in me wanted to touch the stars, but like I could get in trouble if I did. It was a highly emotional piece, I put my love, tears and stories into it.
On the subject of women, there is a bit of controversy on how women artists are perceived, in that there is a debate to whether they should even be called “female” artists, and instead just artists. Do you feel that your femininity inherently defines you as an artist? Or do you prefer gender to be inconsequential to your work?
My femininity will always be an important part of my being. I used to tell myself that I didn’t want to be called a “female filmmaker” or a “female artist”. You see, we all want to be called just an “artist” because that’s what we are at the end of the day!
However, when you look at the realities of the art world. women don’t really exist and if it takes a woman to make art about what it’s like to be a woman then, yes, that’s what we will do. It takes initiatives to balance out the sexism, not only in the industry, but the world we live in. I say we need more of the female artist acknowledgement culture until the day women don’t have to be conscious about their gender to do what they love!
Your Instagram features a lot of your photography; there’s a distinct old Emirati vibe in your work. While it has become the norm to attach the label of modernity to things, you seem to explore historical and traditional narratives. Would you say you’re attached to these traditions in some way? And do they hold any significant influence or value in your work?
Perhaps my work has a traditional influence because I am naturally surrounded by traditions; I live in a very cultural setting and visually, I’m inspired by mundane and everyday life images of the UAE. Whenever I come back from New York, I suddenly look at the UAE from an outsider’s view yet I can take images and tell stories from the inside. That is one of the great gifts traveling gave me; I try to show things the way they are, and follow the elements I love.
As mentioned before, you made a move from visual communications to film writing and directing; I feel that the two, though equal in their potential for creativity, are completely different mediums. There is that contrast between visual and literary expressions; which do you feel like you gravitate towards more as an artist?
It didn’t feel like a huge difference to me. Visuality is a language in and of itself, so it was easy to transfer the visual into the written. But, visual communications deals a lot with photography and videography training so that definitely helped me find the visual language for my own films. I’ve always loved navigating different mediums and don’t think they should be separated. I recently did my first performance art piece and, to some, it might’ve seemed that I was out of my comfort zone, but the core topical content of my work is the same, and it’s still very true to me; I am the same artist after all.
Given that you are an artist that highly focuses on the issues of women, what advice would you give to women in the Emirates struggling to make it in the art/film industry?
A daily reminder to myself, and one that I want to share it with everyone, is to make your art the way your heart wants you to make it. Don’t try to cater to a demographic you either don’t understand or are not passionate about. When you start making things you care about, and you put the work in, the galleries, film festivals, distributors and curators will find you.