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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Power of Film

by Joanna Andrews

Amal Al-Agroobi with US actor Kevin Spacey

Amal Al-Agroobi embarked on her film career just a few years ago and already she has earned herself worldwide acclaim with two award-winning films under her belt. Following the triumph of her first film Half Emirati, which premiered at the 2012 Dubai Film Festival, she received resounding success from her latest project, The Brain That Sings, which firmly rooted her in the Middle Eastern film industry. Joanna Andrews caught up with the Emirati film producer, director and founder of independent film studio ALAGROOBI Films.

William Shakespeare said, ‘If music be the food of love, play on” in the first line of the Twelfth Night. But perhaps it has an even bigger power as Amal Al-Agroobi discovered in her award-winning film The Brain That Sings. The feature documentary follows the journey of two autistic boys in the United Arab Emirates, 19-year-old Mohammed and six-year-old Khalifa. It documents their progression through three months of music therapy, long touted as a successful method in modifying behaviour of people with autism.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears in the first three years of life. It affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others. According to the Autism Society of America, “autism is defined by a certain set of behaviours and is a ‘spectrum disorder’ that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.”

Studies have proved that children with autism show more emotional expression and social engagement during music therapy sessions than in sessions without music.

Al-Agroobi says that music played a key role in Mohammed and Khalifa’s development. “For Khalifa, it gave him the chance to express himself about his father’s death,” she says. “He became more sociable, less sensitive to loud noises and a lot more confident.”

Al-Agroobi believes that the value add came not only from the music, but also from the companionship the boys received. “I like to think that in both cases they had a friend for a time - Marion the music therapist who came to visit them every week.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of the film, she says, was to see how autism impacted the families and the wider community. “I think as filmmakers we are all interested in how audiences perceive our stories - the beauty is what comes after that. The Brain That Sings brought so much positive change. After our nationwide autism campaign hundreds of thousands of people were a lot savvier about autism.”

The film travelled the film festival route for one year, raising awareness for autism along the way, and earning itself several accolades on its journey. But Al-Agroobi didn’t stop there and her determination has paid off. “I took it on tour, showcasing it at different schools, universities and private companies. Finally, the film was picked up by Los Angeles-based Inception Media Group who plan to distribute it worldwide.”

She admits that she is “still a child a heart” which is partly why she embarked on such an ambitious project. “I want to change the world for the better,” she says. “I know that I can do that through the power of film. I want to tell stories that inspire or teach people and show them something they never knew.”

Al-Agroobi studied Biomedical Sciences and Neurosciences in the UK before turning to film. “My science papers would come back riddled with giant question marks,” she says. “They were often sided with exclamation points and accused of being too flowery or descriptive.”

She says that she draws on her learning experiences and her international upbringing to influence her craft. “I’m inspired by the world around me,” she says. “I love learning.”

Al-Agroobi admits that she is her harshest critic, and her biggest challenge is herself. “You have to have faith in what you do and it becomes a challenge when you have nothing to compare it to. I never had a mentor - I kept questioning myself and received no answer, so just kept on going. One of the most difficult things to do is chase success and motivate yourself when everyone is intent on making you believe you can’t do it.”

Work is well underway on her next project. “I am about to shoot my first short fiction,” she says.

“This will be a very different experience to documentary filmmaking, and I am keen to discover my own abilities in terms of conveying narrative stories,” she concludes.

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