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Interview With Kuwaiti Filmmakers

[Meqdad al-Kout. Photo by Faisal Hamadeh.] [Meqdad al-Kout. Photo by Faisal Hamadeh.]

[With a desert to one side and an ocean to another, living in Kuwait can offer very strange experiences. The skies are never blue, approaching a disconcerting beige, and the night bathes in the surrealistic orange glow of street lamps. The ministries and government buildings have the facades of Soviet prisons, and remind one of a Kafka novel when entered. There is that Lynchian feeling of madness hiding behind the wholesome exterior that many wear, and the social customs, especially of the confused youth, are baffling.

Meqdad Al-Kout and Mousaed ‘Moos’ Khaled’s work marinates in this strangeness. Every frame is laden with the specific oddness of Kuwait, each character carrying a secret grotesquery, such as the sexually frustrated engineer of Moaz (Banana) the tribunal of mustachioed smokers at the beginning of Shanab (Moustache) or the depressed and aimless Bo 6illi. The young filmmakers have been extremely prolific, making over twelve short films between them since 2007, displaying a unique visual vocabulary inspired by European auteur attitudes. Their control of tone is a specifically developed skill of theirs, as seen in the assuredness of the short clip from the “shinou ya`ni” Youtube series. The duo’s most recent work, a collaboration called Fulan, was shown at the Dubai Film Festival, and follows a happily unproductive Kuwaiti man through his day-to-day.

In this short interview, we get to know what makes the two filmmakers tick, and why deciding to make films in Kuwait is such an interesting endeavor.]

Faisal Hamada (FH): How hard is it for you to do film in Kuwait? What obstacles lie in your way? Considering these obstacles, what keeps you there when you could just as easily move to a place that is more conducive to the work that you do?

Meqdad Al-Kout: I would assume that making a film has its own difficulties and obstacles regardless of the place, but what makes Kuwait extra special is the fact that there is no film industry, no infrastructure, no film schools, and definitely no film culture or history (except for a few attempts by Khaled Al-Sideeq for example).

The only reason I do not want to start listing the obstacles is because I do not want to start whining. I believe if you really want to make a film, you will make it regardless of your situation.

The reason why I am still making films here is because the obstacles are interesting! I love making films and in Kuwait, the field is completely untapped. So the obstacles are also a very thrilling challenge and a muse to us.

Mousaed Moos Khaled: I cannot say it is especially hard or easy to make a film in Kuwait. It depends on the project itself. Some projects take days, some take months and some, well, are never made. The first obstacle that comes to mind is not having financial support in the form of art funds and the like. Making short films does not cost much in Kuwait, but you need a small budget to be able to make a film with better quality using professional equipment and crew.  We also have a very strict/random censorship department that is the epitome of bureaucracy.  Cinema, amongst other arts, is quite neglected by the government and cultural institutions. We have an institution for music and one for theater, but none for cinema.

As for moving somewhere else to pursue acting and filmmaking, well it has been on my mind for a couple of years now. But I have lived all my life in Kuwait, it’s the place that inspires me the most and it is where I draw my material from. I am not sure how am I going to function in the USA or Canada, for example. Maybe I will never find out, or maybe I will find out and never come back home!

FH: You make a specific point to engage with the Kuwaiti dialect in your films, instead of the more widely spoken dialects, or classical Arabic, or even English. What does the Kuwaiti dialect add to your films? Does the engagement with a specific dialect of Arabic make your films harder to translate?

Meqdad Al-Kout: I try as much as possible to make films about what I know. I grew up in Kuwait and lived here my entire life, so it is only natural that I make films about the people of this country and their dialect with which I am very familiar.  I would say that the Kuwaiti dialect does not add so much to the film as much as it depicts an honest realism and situations. Foreigners might find some things harder to translate, but film is a visual medium that portrays human stories and emotions, which all of us share and relate to, no matter what part of the world you are from.

Mousaed Moos Khaled: It gives the work its identity I guess. It comes from Kuwait and it is about people who live here and Kuwaiti society. Sometimes it is really hard to translate Kuwaiti to English because of the cultural differences. It is how we mostly communicate here. It is how we understand each other. Plus, I think if you make a Kuwaiti film with Kuwaiti characters communicating in classical Arabic it will look really funny. Actually, I might do that someday!

[Mousaed Khaled. Photo from author]

FH: To what extent does autobiography factor into your films? What is your main source of inspiration?

Meqdad Al-Kout: I started out when I was young making films about things that happened to me in my life, but then quickly moved to being interested in other people’s stories. The last three films I made are inspired by real stories about people outside of my life. I have to say that the challenge of living in Kuwait is an inspiration on its own. For example, a stroll in one of our governmental buildings is enough material for ten feature films and two TV shows, give or take.

Mousaed Moos Khaled: A lot I would say. I draw a lot from my humble experience on this planet. From observing, interacting and reflecting. I get inspired by a lot of things. Mostly films, music and comedy (TV or standup). I get inspired by hearing people share stories, and also by reading. As John Cleese put it once, “I try to be as knowledgeable as I am before I die.”

FH: Your work does not have much of a precedent in Kuwait, and in the Gulf region at large, I would argue. What drove you to make the kinds of films you make? Do you consider an audience who would appreciate it when you are making it?

Meqdad Al-Kout: I guess whatever result comes out in those films is a collective of things I have seen or heard in Kuwait, plus the kind of films I like and certain authors. I do not have a good answer to why I am making these kinds of films instead of doing something else. It could be celestial. I do not have a specific type of audience in my mind when I make a film. I know eventually this film will be shown to different people from different places and different mentalities, so I try to focus on making it the way I feel it.

Mousaed Moos Khaled: Everyone likes a certain genre or style of filmmaking because they personally connect with it somehow. You learn more from the directors you like and they influence your work because it is how you get familiar with storytelling tools.

As for the audience, well, we do have them in mind while making the films because without an audience you have nothing. We do hope they like it and we try to be as “clear” as we can.

FH: When I saw your work, and maybe it is because I know Kuwait, I immediately saw the ‘Kuwaitiness,’ whatever that means, of the work. However, your themes and aesthetics do not have a lineage in Kuwait.  Do you deal with accusations of being ‘Westernized?’ How do you react to, and deal with these accusations?

Meqdad Al-Kout: I think it is mainly because generally in this region there is no history of visual aesthetics. Poetry and prose have been the dominant form of art since forever. So, for us to start portraying our stories with visuals, we end up being influenced by Western artists and their techniques. I have not ever been accused of being westernized. I try as much as possible to be honest with showing the Kuwaiti culture as it is, regardless of the visual language that is used to show it.

Mousaed Moos Khaled: True. Definitely Westernized (or maybe globalized?) because there is no other alternatives to that when it comes to cinema in Kuwait. All the books on cinema for example come from the USA and Europe (translated to English.) And I try to watch as many films as I can from all over the world. I guess that is what shapes the image of what cinema is to me. The tools are the same all over the world, but the subject matter here is Kuwaiti.

FH: There seems to be a burgeoning art-film ‘scene’ in Kuwait with similar concerns and approaches. Can you speak a bit about this community? What is your relationship to the elder statesmen of the Kuwaiti cultural scene, such as the writers and actors of the 70s and 80s?

Meqdad Al-Kout: Mousaed is one of the few people in Kuwait that share my approach about film, if not the only one. I find it really hard being in any community in Kuwait due to my lack of interest in communities in Kuwait. I do however try to get in touch with artists who share our concerns, namely Thuraya Al-Baqsami whose short story “Winged Sofa” inspired one of my short films. Khalid Al-Sideeq is the renowned Kuwaiti director of “Bas Ya Bahar” with whom I still keep in touch.

Mousaed Moos Khaled: We have a group that works together on several short films a year. Though we might differ a lot in approach, we share one goal. We rotate our positions according to what is needed in any project. I personally have acted, written, directed, was a production manager, edited and brought food to the set. And almost all the guys in our group have done the same.

As for writers and actors from previous generations, unfortunately we are not in contact with them. Most of them have either quit working or do a project every three or four years. One well-known Kuwaiti producer, who worked on Hollywood-related projects years ago, still thinks we are kids playing around. He came on Alwatan TV once and during his interview and said, “Kuwaiti filmmakers should stop dreaming. There won’t be a cinema industry in Kuwait.”

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