Tales From ADFF: My Day with Nawaf Al-Janahi

image description

Community member Omar Adam continues his reports from ADFF

In 9 hours, I found out that Nawaf Al-Janahi dislikes romance films. I found out that he shies away from the glamour that many in our industry crave, that he, like me, is resistant to directing a comedy, and that his coffee of choice is a double espresso. We talked film for a long time, discussing Michael Mann’s greatness and the importance of open and honest criticism in media. We watched two films, one interesting, one dreadful. In between, I came to know that one of the UAE’s top directors is down to earth, friendly, and, perhaps most importantly, willing to lend an ear and a hand to anyone who wants his advice, expertise, or help. 
I started off the day by attending the Build It and They Will Come: A Retrospective on the Gulf’s Fledgling Film Industry panel, which Nawaf was a speaker on. Along with several important names in the UAE’s budding media industry (which, it was generally agreed upon, does not yet exist), Nawaf honestly examined the UAE film scene, criticising what needed to be criticised while praising what needed to be praised. The panel proved an exciting foray into what needs to be done, both from filmmakers and regulators, in order to take Gulf film to the next level. For a full report on the very fruitful panel, check out Amin Fadl’s in depth blog on the Creative Lab website. 
After the panel, I was introduced to Nawaf and we were off on our day. The very first thing he asked me was to tell my story; why I chose to get into film and why I chose to write and direct. And he listened. He really listened, not at all half-heartedly, and would continually reference elements of my story throughout the rest of the day. Here was my first indication as to what kind of person Nawaf Al-Janahi was; the type of person who, despite his own successes, would still give a just-starting-out filmmaker his full attention. 
We sat down and he told me his story; how he’d started acting at the young age of eight, due to his father (Mohammed Al-Janahi, a well known Emirati actor/director), how he’d watch Behind the Scene videos and Making Of’s, and how he knew, at age 14, that he wanted to direct. He ran me through his time attending university in San Francisco, fondly recalling (and with a bit of swagger at his results) a shoot-on-film assignment. I should note that Nawaf, who is half Egyptian, can switch seamlessly between an Egyptian accent (when talking to me or any other Egyptian) and an Emirati accent (when talking to any non-Egyptian). He vaguely alluded to his upcoming projects (which amount to three, one of which he’s writing himself), before we left Emirates Palace on a shuttle to Marina Mall, where the Russian Film Test, part of ADFF’s Narrative Competition, was to be screened. 
Nawaf and I arrived to the theatre with a few minutes to spare, and we took the time to grab a coffee and chat about 2013’s atrocious (and yet, wonderful) Emirati film Bani Adam. We ran through a gamut of films, with Nawaf refusing to speak to me about any films that I hadn’t watched (his rationale was that he did not want to influence my opinion on any film until I had formed my own, again displaying a humility and thoughtfulness that was pleasantly endearing). The conversation flowed into accepting criticism as a filmmaker, where Nawaf imparted upon me the advice to never take any criticism of your work personally; that criticism was meant to teach, and that those that view filmmaking as a competition, and thus criticise to appear superior, should be ignored. 
We walked into Test along with Faisal Al-Duwaisan, a Kuwaiti director, chatting about Batman v. Superman and its roots in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Geeking out with two acclaimed directors was a personal highlight of the day. We settled in to our seats next to Khalid Al-Mahmood, another acclaimed Emirati director (who later appreciated my comparison of Test to a Terrance Malik film, another personal highlight). 
Test was an interesting, at times plodding, but ultimately satisfying meditation on life. Interestingly, despite sharing many of the same favourite films, Nawaf disliked everything I liked about the film, and I disliked everything he liked about it. We swapped opinions and theories of Test en route to the night’s red carpet showing: the world premiere of renowned Egyptian film director Ibrahim El-Batout’s new film, El Ott. 
We settled in to the Emirates Palace auditorium as Nawaf gave me a crash course on Batout’s filmography. My anticipation of El Ott  was only heightened by the fact that I was seated next to two of the UAE’s biggest directors, and thankfully I’ll always have that moment, because the 90 minutes that followed were undoubtedly my least favourite film watching experience I’ve had this year. El Ott was a massive disappointment, a poorly acted, generically directed, woefully written mess. As the film drew to a merciful close, Nawaf and I shared my favourite exchange of the day: 
Nawaf: What did you think?
Me: I... hated it.
Nawaf: Good.
On that note, we exited the film and said our goodbye’s, putting a close to what was undoubtedly an eventful day. Nawaf has an uncanny ability to make you feel at ease, and is never less than honest regardless of the topic. He doesn’t hesitate in pointing out what he perceives as a flaw, either in himself or others, and beyond his own honesty, he encourages honesty when talking to him.  He recommended an editor for my film after hearing about my post production woes; “tell him Nawaf sent you” he coolly told me, all confidence but with no smugness, easy to talk to without ever feeling talked down to. 
All too often, one will hear stories of a celebrity’s better-than-you attitude, of the dark personal side of a success story, of the nasty attitude of a loved entertainer. Nawaf Al-Janahi was, for the better part of a whole day, never less than nice, easy to talk to, and open to listening to me. He must have shaken hands and greeted at least 40 people throughout our day, sharing a personal story, an inside joke, or laugh with each of them. That he would introduce me, and bring me into his conversations with others, at least for me, says more about him than this piece ever could. 
Pieces of advice from Nawaf to filmmakers: 
• If you’re a young filmmaker, don’t talk, listen. “You’ll spend a good part of the next 5 years listening” he told me, explaining that in listening to those that have had successes, you will impress more than trying to talk yourself up.
• Learn from the mistakes of your work, and always criticise yourself. 
• Always have a project lined up, even if you’re in the midst of one. If someone sees your film and likes, Nawaf explained, and they approach you, they want to know what’s next. “You’ll find that the conversation will be done in 5 minutes once you say ‘I don’t have any projects’.”
• Be willing to accept your own craziness. You have to be crazy to be a filmmaker.
• Do not think of film as a platform for sending messages out to the world. Your job is to tell stories, and the messages are what each viewer takes from that story. The story comes first; if you’re interested in messages, write motivational posters.