Exploring identity and diplomacy in a horror-comedy set in the UAE

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The fictional world in Farah Al Qasimi’s first feature-length film, a 40-minute horror-comedy titled Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire), is one where soothing pastels meet blinking neon lights, and where floral fabrics, delicate tissue boxes and marble bathrooms collide with cyberspace graphics, modern technology, and social media.

“This is, quite honestly, what my world looks like,” says Al Qasimi, who, with a Lebanese-American mother and an Emirati father, spent much of her life living between the US and Abu Dhabi, where she grew up. “A lot of the photographs were shot in my home or my friend’s homes, which have a decor that I find both beautiful and comforting.”

British Journal of Photography first met Al Qasimi in 2017, when she was featured in the magazine as one of our Ones to Watch. Back then, the photographer was exploring themes of home and belonging through the female experience and how women are perceived in her culture, a subject that is still present within her work. 

© Farah Al Qasimi

Al Qasimi’s recent work in film came about through her desire to “pull people into a world and tell a story over time”. Inspired by the genre of “horror-comedy”, in films like Sean of the Dead, as well as supernatural horror films such as The Exorcist, The Shining, and Poltergeist, Al Qasimi turned her attention to exploring cultural identity, diplomacy, and state power via the moving image.

The film imagines an episode of a fictional reality TV show that focuses on the life of a jinn, a misunderstood Arab spirit called Um Al Naar. In Islamic theology, jinns are shape-shifting beings that can possess humans. “We have a lot of jinn stories in our culture, but they’re always painted as malicious creatures,” explains the photographer. “I wanted to design a character who is misunderstood, and easy to sympathise with.”

© Farah Al Qasimi

The film provides the centrepiece of Al Qasimi’s latest exhibition, Arrival, now on show at The Third Line gallery in Dubai. It is accompanied by a series of photographs that are intended to be moments pulled from the world she depicts in the film. These framed stills are layered against atmospheric images that are printed onto vinyl wallpaper to give additional context. “The images are intuitive reactions to quiet or domestic moments that might echo some of the ideas in the film,” she says.

Arrival by Farah Al Qasimi will be on show at The Third Line in Dubai, UAE, until 23 November 2019.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.