Current media representation in Kuwaiti pop culture is mainly restricted to soap operas. Kuwait-based indie filmmakers, therefore, feel the need to represent overlooked social issues. The three short films in this spotlight attempt to explore some examples of marginalized experiences; the old man on the verge of senility/insanity in Our Neighbor Bu Hamad, and the strong association between physical disability and altered reality, or the perception of it, in both Transformation and Within Me.
Our Neighbor Bu Hamad (Mishal Al-Hulail)
Our Neighbor Bu Hamad is directed by Mishal Al-Hulail. The film tells the story of Khalid, a young Kuwaiti man’s friendship with the eccentric old man next door. The friendship begins when Khalid notices strange activities from Bu Hamad’s window. After which, he’s later intimidated into participating in what turns out to be a teleportation device in development. He helps by volunteering as the teleported object. After a series of experiments and a strange set-back, where the machine produces a clone of Khalid, they both kidnap the clone and bring him back to formula. Shortly after, Khalid receives the news about Bu Hamad’s death. The film ends with a phone call between the two, where Bu Hamad tells Khalid about how he used the machine to clone himself in order to fake his death and start over somewhere new, far from Kuwait.
The film is reminiscent of the Marty-Doc dynamic from Back to the Future, adapted into a Kuwaiti folklore structure; the amount of “fiction” in science-fiction, the whimsical adventure, and the play on the universal stigma about old men who’re obsessed with their machines. In addition to the parallel in between a time-travel machine out of a Delorian, and a teleportation device out of a small camping tent.
Al-Hulail’s films following Out Neighbor Bu Hamad take on whimsical storylines, yet reflect dark realities about Kuwaiti culture. The desire to leave home and start over somewhere new is a recurrent theme in Kuwaiti cultural production. Our Neighbor Bu Hamad does not speculate why this exists as a theme or a reality, but rather shows how far it spreads along social spheres and age-groups.
Transformation (Naqlah) (Yousef Al-Bagshi)
Naqlah by Yousef Al-Bagshi is one of the very few animated short films by Kuwaiti filmmakers. It tells the story of a physically disabled young man living with his mother in war-stricken Syria. Feelings of guilt for being a burden on his elderly single mother haunt his every thought. His hallucinations reflect self-fragilating thoughts and instigate acts of self-harm. On the day he spends home along, one of his hallucinations pushes him towards a suicide attempt. Right before the pair of sheers slice his wrists he hears air raid sirens go off, announcing an impending bombing. He received this with great relief, drops the scissors and awaits his death. Until his mother barges in, tries to save him while he resists her attempts. The film ends with the revelation that he, after losing an arm, had his nervous system shocked into being able to walk and carried his mother into safety.
The title is a literal translation to the original arabic title, Naqlah. which implies a sudden transformation to a radically improved status. the short animated film is based on a real story that Al-Bagshi heard from a Syrian war survivor calling a live television program. Psycho-somatic effects are not only a sci-fi-esque characteristic that we witness in real life, it is more importantly a reminder that the mind/body binary is null. The ghost is in itself the machine it inhabits, and vice versa.
Within Me (Aziz Al-Ballam)
The director of this film Aziz Al-Ballam identifies as first and foremost a Director of photography. Since Within Me is one of his earliest films, he focused the main portion of his efforts on the image. He uses a color palette, lights, and image framing that display the story as a surrealist interpretive dance of sorts reflecting the inner experience of a physically disabled Kuwaiti man. The storyline can be a little confusing to the viewer, while being aesthetically appealing. It reminds me of Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody and Toto the Hero; where the protagonist goes through, what we as viewers perceive to be, pieces of a puzzle about his life that is revealed at the end.
As a viewer trying to decipher the puzzle pieces of the film while watching it, I found myself relating to several different motifs without having it cross my mind that it had anything to do with physical disability. I found the monotony, repetitiveness, confusion, and paranoia surrounding Kafkaesque bureaucratic and office jobs environments very relatable. The feeling like a person was stuck in a cyclical narrative of trying to figure out a truth that is being denied in the first place is something that I witness in different contexts around me constantly. The protagonist in Within me has constructed the characters her interacts with as a way to escape his disability. While in the reality he creates, it seems that he looks for the one he is trying to abandon.
The film critiques the general accepted “norm” in professional settings. This is portrayed in the protagonists constant feeling of being alone and left out. It’s certainly a clever way that Al-Ballam creates a link between anyone’s frustration with such common pressures, and relating it to being constrained to a wheelchair. Similarly to most thinkers in crip philosophy, Al-Ballam illustrates disidentification within the protagonist’s fantasy of being included in the normative system, and the viewer’s disidentification by gradually relating to and understanding an example of the disabled experience.
About the author
Zahra (Zouz) Al-Mahdi (1989) is an English Literature graduate from Kuwait University, College of Arts. She's an artist, writer, and filmmaker. She is known for collage work using ink sketches layered over photographs, animation on live action, and installations that deal with dissected anatomical figures. Science fiction, Post-colonialism, and Post-structuralism are leading themes in her oeuvre. Her most notable work are her debut graphic novel titled We, the Borrowed (2016), and an online mockumentary miniseries titled Bird Watch (2017).