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A hardened woman moves to a remote island in the Emirates in search of a new start, and develops a fraught relationship with the locals - from the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

Chador-clad Hana (M. Hira) has a cold and stern gaze. She never smiles, and her answers are extremely curt. She has a strong sense of pragmatism, often with ruthlessness attached to it. She moves to the small and sparsely populated island of Dalma on the coast of the Emirates in order to claim her father’s inheritance. This is a plain and humble community, a far cry from the hustle and bustle, the sumptuous architecture and the abundant wealth of Dubai and Abu Dabhi. It is never clear where exactly Dana comes from. On the other hand, it is clear that she has some very heavy emotional baggage, which she attempts to conceal under the tough persona that she crafted. The only flashback into the past is of her small daughter stating: “she’s my mother but not really my mother”, suggesting that she has a fractious and painful relationship with her family.

Such an assertive and callous woman is deeply offensive to locals. These qualities are normally associated with masculinity. Dana is subversive on many more levels: an unrepentant divorcee in control of her body and sex life (her sexuality is subtle however unusually explicit for an Emirian film). The black garment covering most of her body does not oppress Dana; instead it seems to empower her. She fires the local builder without blinking and without pay because she was dissatisfied with the speed of his service. She reports the owner of the local restaurant to the food hygiene authorities after finding a cockroach in her food and opens her cafe in the very same spot. Her actions infuriate the handsome local doctor Ghaith (Rashed Hasan), with whom she briefly shared a romantic spark. She makes a habit of taking her foes to court and threatening them with prison.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, locals do not welcome her, and she has to rely on tourists for a clientele. A customer notes: “you are at war with yourself, not with others”. Beneath the rigid veneer is a lonely vulnerable woman. In a way, Dana is more insular than the islanders. Dalma is not an activist movie about an empowered female character. This is a humanistic drama about a woman who shields herself from harm by attacking others. Hira’s delivery is extremely convincing and potent. She is a multidimensional character that embodies many contradictions. She elicits neither allegiance nor repulsion from viewers, just a little empathy instead. She’s just a fallible human being, who deserves kindness and compassion (even if she doesn’t know how to handle these two expressions of affection at all).

Her relative peace in the idyllic new environment gradually spirals out of control. Children throw eggs at her cafe, and Ghaith’s mother decides to take matter into her own hands. The ice-hold woman begins to lose her cool, and to worry about her physical integrity. As usual, she resorts to the same establishment that routinely subjugates women, actioning the police and demanding punishment. But what if islanders decide to take matters into their own hands? Ghaith threatens to “discipline” Dana. That’s a radical however unsurprising reaction to the fact a woman challenged the power balance: Dana assumed the ruthless and manipulative role typically assigned to men. This could morph into the battle of a wounded and ferocious woman against latent sexism.

Humaid Alsuwaidi’s third feature is a commentary on misogyny that does not lapse into victim cliches. It is a finely executed piece of slow cinema with a few shortcomings. While the acting of the two protagonists is very good, and the pace of the movie is reflexive and engaging, the script has a few loose ends (a woman gets inexplicably attacked inside her car; Hana hands out strange print outs to a group of tourists, etc). More significantly, a vexingly melodramatic music score – more Douglas Sirk than Michelangelo Antonioni – clashes with the low-key tone of the story.

Dalma is in the Official Competition of the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. A strong contender for the Best Actress Prize, and hopefully a movie that will reach European soil.

By Victor Fraga - 05-12-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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