Screen Savers: Aisha Alzaabi

Laura Beaney

2 min read

Rarely have the cultural stereotypes assigned to Arab women been contested as much as they have in their own films. The topics tackled by the female filmmakers of the Middle East are packed with purpose, steering away from political clichés, the subject matter is diverse and daring, from child abuse and female genital mutilation to flights into sci-fi fantasy. In this three-part series we speak to the Emirati female filmmakers that have helped to shape the silver screen. 

In recent years the romantic comedies and political produce that have previously typified Arab cinema have made way for a new wave of genre-based film. In September this year Beirut saw the Maskoon Fantastic Fest open, it was the Middle East’s first film festival to cater exclusively to the horror, fantasy, action, and SCI-FI categories. The festival was also a reflection of the changing nature of the films produced in the region. Aisha Alzaabi is part of this new wave. At just 21-years-old she directed her first film, The Other Dimension. Her thriller used the parallel worlds of reality and imagination to provide a platform for penance. When her lead, a 20-year-old troublemaker has an accident he views himself from an alternative reality, from this perspective he realises his past mistakes. “When I started people didn’t take me particularly seriously,” Alzaabi admits. “But after I won the Muhr Emirati Prize at Dubai International Film Festival they began to understand my potential as a filmmaker.” 

for today’s aspiring filmmakers like Alzaabi resources and opportunity are theirs for the taking

For the front-runners like Al Khaja and Al Mansour, producing films in a Middle East that was perhaps unequipped for them surely posed challenges. But for today’s aspiring filmmakers like Alzaabi resources and opportunity are theirs for the taking. “After attending several workshops with TwoFour54 I realised that I was really interested in filmmaking, it was with their support that I directed my first film,” she says. 

It is, of course, still early days for Alzaabi, she’s becoming accustom to the art of interviews and is quietly evaluating her own sense of filmic style. “I’m still discovering everything,” she admits. “I really want to reach a point where people start knowing that this is me.” Inspired by the success stories of Ali Mustafa (City of life) and Asghar Farhadi, her next moves will see her complete her masters in film studies and journey to film festivals across the globe. 

It’s the audience that’s changed. Nowadays more people understand and appreciate cinema
Aisha Alzaabi

​A sign of a cultural shift in attitudes as well as in tastes for genres; Alzaabi’s story is in fact a far cry from the societal rejection that Al Khaja faced a decade before. In fact the support she received throughout her community was instrumental, with many taking an avid interest in her projects. “When I filmed my most recent work in my hometown, Ras Al Khaimah everybody around me was helping. They all wanted to contribute to make the film a success.”

Alzaabi who credits the success of her casting calls to social media is today riding the wave of greater acceptance paved out for her by the women before her. Indeed, Middle Eastern cinema has undergone many changes with new techniques tried and applied as the region continues to fine- tune its industry. And as the UAE strives to amp up the pace with more and more directors emerging each year, the thirst for film reveals just as much about the mindset of its punters. “It’s the audience that’s changed,” Alzaabi reasons. “Nowadays more people understand and appreciate cinema, that’s been the biggest change.”