Interview with Abdulla Al Kaabi, director of Only Men Go to the Grave

Abdulla Al Kaabi’s first feature film, Only Men Go to the Grave premiered at the 2016 edition of Dubai International Film Festival and won Best Muhr Emirati Feature. Al Kaabi’s previous films include two short films, The Philosopher, starring Jean Reno which screened at DIFF in 2010 and Koshk which screened at Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014 where it won two prizes there

In March the film got acquired by MAD Solutions for distribution rights in the Arab region (the same distributor of the Jordanian film Theeb which earned a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the Oscars in 2016). Only Men Go to the Grave has been travelling the international film festival circuit, most recently at 10th edition of Oran International Arabic Film Festival in July. 

The film will a get a theatrical release in Dubai on 10 August at VOX Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates and is scheduled to screen until 23 August, but no word yet about the rest of the UAE.

Only Men Go to the Grave is about a family and its secrets, set in mostly one location. The underlying theme is gender and sexual identity, a topic that is highly sensitive and controversial in the Arab region. I watched the film at its premiere and although it is rough around the edges, for a first feature film by Al Kaabi, it is a brave and commendable attempt, especially since the film was self funded. The film itself tackles its themes very delicately and there is nothing overtly suggestive or inappropriate to show in a culturally sensitive society. 

In an interview with Gulf News, Al Kaabi said "It’s not the story that’s the issue, it’s the way you tackle it. I tackled it, bearing in mind that I’m going to show it in our community, in this part of the world. In the end it’s a story. There’s no nudity, there’s no pornography, there’s no violence. There’s just is a lot of silence. And that’s the power of cinema. You can open a dialogue without making anyone feel uncomfortable."

A film like Only Men Go to the Grave can help create a public discourse, to get people to think about gender and sexual identity and respond to it, positively or negatively. Films made in the region that tries to tackle taboo issues are hard to see outside the film festival circuit, so I’m glad this film is getting released in Dubai, albeit a limited one, and hope it gets a wider release across the region.

This is the synopsis of the film: 

After the Iraq-Iran war ended in 1988, a blind mother welcomes her estranged daughters to tell them a secret. Unfortunately, she accidentally dies while sharing it. During the funeral, the daughters try to deal with their mother's sudden death and also work together to unveil her secret by looking for clues from visitors. Throughout the funeral, their own lives continue to unravel, giving room for buried family tensions to gradually surface, while struggling to deal with their own secrets and deep-rooted guilt. The arrival of an unfamiliar guest rocks the entire foundation of their family. How do they deal with the aftermath?

I spoke to Abdulla Al Kaabi in May to discuss his film. The following is our conversation: 

Let’s start from the beginning, because I recall reading you were working on a film titled "Girls in the Know" which I guess was its original title. I also read it took you 5 years to work on Only Men Go to the Grave film, so could you tell me about the journey of your first feature film and its transformation over the years.

Initially, I wrote it as an Egyptian movie, and because of the premise of my story, I thought it would only work in Egypt. I then decided to make it Khaleeji film and make it in the United Arab Emirates, but that didn’t work out due to a lot of budget constraints. I then ended up doing it in Iran with Arab-Iranians. 

Was the budget constraints because of the difficulties of getting UAE films financed or was it to do with the story?

I was fed up because the financiers I approached wanted to change the script and I reached a point where it was no longer the story I wanted to tell. I can tolerate input during the creative process because the producer is part of that process. But for me, to change the script and the story is not what I really wanted to do. So I decided to shoot it independently. I raised the funds myself privately and shot it in Iran.

That’s the frustration I guess, the creative interference that filmmakers face here. They get told things like "yes we will fund your film, but we want to control the story".

My story wasn’t as controversial back then when I started to get it up and running. It wasn’t until I got the private funds raised that I realised I don’t have a producer to report to and I have complete creative control, which meant I could shoot whatever I want. That’s when I decided to bring out the script, and told myself let’s flesh it out and let me go all the way. Did you see the movie?

Yes, I watched it at DIFF last December. Whilst researching the films on DIFF’s website, to make my list of what to watch, I saw this line “Contains: Adult References and Gay Theme” included in the description of your film. To me that was a complete spoiler, but I guess DIFF needs to include content advisory for each film they screen. I was intrigued by the title alone and wanted to go in not knowing much details about the film. I watched it at the premiere screening in Madinat Theatre. I remember the response after the film ended and during the Q & A was very supportive. It appeared you had lots of family and friends attending which was great. But I was wondering what was the response like at the second screening which took place at VOX Cinemas which probably consisted of the regular cinema going crowd.

The people at the premiere knew exactly what kind of film they were coming to see. For the second screening, the response after the screening and during the Q & A felt more critical of the subject matter, but it was also quite supportive. It was an opportunity for me to explain the film. There was actually no mention of the gay love story.I think the screenings were successful because it raises the issue of a taboo subject, but at the same time it doesn’t offend. It speaks to the audience in a language it understands and that’s why I think the movie resonates with the Arab viewers, because everyone knows that this kind of love exists. In the end, the audience members were extremely supportive. 

When I made this movie, my intention was only one thing - if I raise a taboo subject or something that’s a bit controversial, it’s to open up a dialogue. That’s it. That’s my job as a filmmaker. I’m not a propagandist. I’m not trying to enforce a way of thinking or ideology. The movie is about a human condition, about opening up a dialogue, about being transparent. When you are transparent, you encourage peaceful understanding, you encourage cultural understanding. But if you keep something taboo and cover it up, it creates problems. 

Aesthetically, the film has a minimal look and most of it takes place in one location. But when it comes to the secrets, there are multiple plots and layers, we also see cross-dressing from both a male and female perspective. I was wondering if that was too much in terms of trying to get your message across about what this film is trying to say, instead of focusing on the mother and her secret. I was intrigued, for instance, by the son-in-law, Jaber and wondered what his backstory is. There could be a separate film just about him. Could you tell me about these choices you made for the film.

It’s interesting to hear this point of view. Thanks for sharing it. For me, I wanted to question gender identity and gender roles. That’s why I was playing around with Jaber’s character because he was also exploring his gender identity and role in society and we were experiencing that with him in the movie, and you could see his wife Ghanima was frustrated, and I tried to show where her frustration comes from. 

What are your thoughts on labelling this film as queer cinema because this is the first UAE film that could be categroised as that?

You saw the movie, if you categorise it in that way, then whatever way you categorise it is the right answer. Your perspective is much more important than mine because in the end, the movie is made for you to watch. I am happy if it is labelled as queer cinema or as conventional cinema, it doesn’t matter to me. 


Please go to the cinema and support this film. You can watch Only Men Go to the Grave at VOX Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates between 10 - 23 August, part of DIFF365 screenings. Tickets cost AED 45.

It will also be screening between 18 - 22 and 24 August at Cinema Akil's latest pop up. Tickets cost AED 35.