A Floral Telling Of A Bronze History: Jinn & Youth
Emirati Artist, Farah Al Qasimi’s “Um Al Naar (Mother Of Fire)” Film Review
I figured since it’s Halloween month, it’d be fitting for me to review a horror film. I’m a big fan of horror — but more under the guise of Andy Warhol’s satiric classics “Flesh For Frankenstein” (1973) & “Blood For Dracula”(1974), the ridiculously good & wonderfully bad low-budget Canadian horror movie series “Ginger Snaps”, along with pretty much any slasher film released in the 1980s. I happened across Farah Al Qasimi’s 2019 feature film, “Um Al Naar” or “Mother of Fire” presented online via the Hammer Museum in LA with a really great live Q&A session featuring Al Qasimi & curatorial assistant, Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi. I recently learned about Al Qasimi and her art — she inspires whimsical flaws against the juxtaposition of Western ideals and traditional Middle Eastern culture. Being a part Balochi/Bahraini and part white-as-they-come American, Al Qasimi’s work is pretty special to me. Walking that awkward balance beam between white privilege & Western culture while also experiencing racism (9/11 was a pretty rough time to be Arab-American), I really appreciate finding artists who I can relate to on a cultural level. I can go on about her lovely still work which can be viewed here, but we are going to dive into her film, my new favorite black comedy horror film “Um Al Naar”.
“Um Al Naar” is the fictional titular character — a very powerful, very ancient jinn (better known as “genie” to the West). Jinn, you should know are the Middle Eastern version of boogeymen or spirits — although it’s a lot more complicated than that as they first appear in Islamic mythology. They come in all forms and variations; like the beautiful jinn, Um Al Duwais, who seduces men and then hacks them to pieces with her sickle when they fall into temptation. Or Ehmat Il Gayal — a half woman, half donkey that eats children who forgo their afternoon naps to play outside. Um Al Naar is discovered by a reality tv film crew haunting ruins in Ras Al Khaimah, and is subsequently interviewed about how colonialism has shaped the region and how this affects the city along with the jinn who haunt it. She’s soft and fun to look at, adorned with varying floral patterns, different textures and a silly purple face — the character design itself is very lovely and follows a common theme in Al Qasimi’s work.
Um Al Naar is distressed. She speaks about the sadness and depression she experiences as time moves on, the city continues to change and her powers grow weaker. She seems more than anything, misunderstood and trying to find a pocket of happiness to call her own as she wanders the city following people who bake and dance — for her, fleeting happiness. It proves a difficult feat as the world moves further into gentrification, more innovative technology, and the slow demise of significant cultural history. I remember watching this scene and feeling a wave of poignancy washing over me. There’s something pretty heartbreaking about the character, paired with the crumbling history she’s speaking to us about. I think we all can relate in that aspect, no matter what our cultural background. Waves erode stone all the same, you get me?
Um Al Naar has a mortal enemy — as jinn do— the world renowned exorcist, Baba Ali. Played by Al Qasimi herself, Baba Ali is your classic Captain Ahab-on-a-life-mission-to-slay-the-great-beast but — while wielding a magical keyboard. Exorcist #2 comes in the form of real life exorcist, Ahmed The Exorcist, who refused to be filmed but provides a solid lesson on jinn exorcism while referencing the found footage on his mobile phone. Um Al Naar isn’t afraid of them. What seems to scare her most is the inevitable fade out.. to be forgotten.
I was able to catch a lecture Al Qasimi did recently via Zoom with the School of Visual Arts in New York and she talked about how the concept for the film started as a documentary on jinn exorcism and pivoted to a sort of fictional documentary on disappearing traditions. I wouldn’t categorize the film as a mockumentary though, the definition just doesn’t fit for me. There’s no mocking or making fun going on here, this is Al Qasimi’s gift to us. A moving picture honoring the in-betweens, the organic human expression as she explains in so many words. A common theme in all of her work, I found the sentiment really thoughtful.
The film is special. One of those rare indie nuggets that you have to really tune into to understand. But if you pay attention and let yourself feel, you’ll understand that the film is Al Qasimi’s love letter to her home, her childhood, and her cultural traditions. If you’re lucky enough to find the film to watch, be sure to drop me a note and let me know what you think — I would love to hear your thoughts. For now, you can view the trailer below. الوداع