In a clip from a documentary by 28-year-old Emirati filmmaker and artist Sarah Al Mheiri, she captures her young sister dressed in a traditional jalabiya, sitting in the backseat of a moving car, navigating how to eat chicken nuggets while wearing a golden burqa on her face. ‘Try eating the way they [our female ancestors] used to,’ Al Mheiri persuades her in Arabic. ‘Why?’ wonders her sister aloud as she finally manages to lift her burqa and get a bite of a nugget.
The clip is part of a 30-minute long documentary film titled Yado & I (My Grandmother and Me). ‘Yado & I explores the relationship my only living grandmother from Ras Al Khaimah and I have as we examine the drastic differences between their lives [and ours] and try to find common ground,’ says Al Mheiri, who has a Master’s in Documentary Filmmaking from the United States. ‘I was the only granddaughter to study and live abroad. It wasn’t until I moved halfway across the world that I realised I had taken my culture, tradition and family for granted, and that if I did not take the time to sit with my grandmother now [and document her life] then I would regret it later.’
In the film, Al Mheiri interviews her grandmother, who grew up in Ras Al Khaimah, a UAE emirate, before the discovery of oil, about how different her life was back then. She used her sister to film archival footage relating to stories of her grandmother’s childhood, which resulted in the aforementioned clip. ‘I wanted to showcase archival footage but I couldn’t find much so I decided to make my own,’ says Al Mheiri. ‘The clip was taken after filming [had wrapped up]. I felt bad so I bought her some McDonalds.’ The result? A fascinating clip that highlights how the traditional and modern blend together today.
‘ Yado & I was not my first documentary but it was the hardest,’ confesses Al Mheiri, whose grandmother took four months of persuading to appear on camera. ‘Emirati society is very private…So to be allowed to film, even my own family members, was not easy but it was worth the struggle.’
‘I love exploring Emirati or Khaleeji female society, and exploring it mainly through the lens of the Western world. Currently I am working on a short documentary/surreal series where I use a David Attenborough-style narrator who mispronounces Arab names and words, and which explores the world of the traditional Emirati woman,’ she reveals when we ask her about her future projects. The project is inspired by the documentaries about the region that were made in the 1940s that narrated the culture poorly, she says.
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