Sarajevo 2023 review: Fata Morgana (Daood Alabdulaa)

“It just doesn’t come through quite as potently in this film, which would have benefitted from more time to develop the deeply fascinating themes, turning a solid effort into something far more compelling.”

In his sophomore directorial effort (following the four-minute short film Drawing from Memory, a semi-autobiographical account of the director’s childhood), Daood Alabdulaa tells the story of a truck driver in contemporary Qatar, showing his daily routine as he tries to make a living. He places it in contrast with the trials and tribulations of an unseen protagonist – implied to be the director himself as they share the same name and claim to be young film students voyaging from Germany to Qatar to make a film – who we only encounter through sporadic bursts of text that appear on screen, as well as through vague moments of narration in which his inner thoughts blend with a testimony on the lives of truck drivers in the Middle East. There are many ideas embedded in Fata Morgana, a promising introduction to the director who works to craft a film that speaks to several issues that he finds particularly fascinating, using them as the foundation for a narrative that combines fact and fiction in unique ways. Alabdulaa is certainly an intriguing filmmaker, albeit one that is still developing his voice. So while this film has its moments of brilliance it doesn’t feel entirely cohesive, inciting our curiosity but rarely giving us the solutions that we seek from this material, which is one of the more disappointing aspects of what is certainly an ambitious film.

There is no denying that Alabdulaa has genuine talent – he shows a keen eye for detail and the willingness to explore several themes, enough to capture our attention. We are living in an age when the boundaries between fact and fiction are gradually eroding, which makes a film like Fata Morgana that never professes to be one or the other quite valuable, since it shows that there is a way of occupying the ambiguous space between the two extremes without having to necessarily justify choosing one over the other. The choice of subject itself is unusual – a story of a truck driver trying to exist in an economic landscape in which his job security is beyond brittle, as told through the camera lens of a protagonist we never directly encounter, but with whom we still form an interesting relationship. On a purely conceptual level, Alabdulaa makes some bold choices with Fata Morgana, which is usually one of the bigger accomplishments for a young director making their way through an industry that is constantly searching for something unique, despite the general sentiment that seeking originality is a fool’s errand. Whether or not these ideas manifest on screen as well as they did in the planning stages is a matter of interpretation, but the striking cinematography (it is quite clear that Alabdulaa is someone who finds the most value in images, since the strongest aspects of this film are all visual) and unusual perspective do draw the viewer into this story.

However, despite these interesting ideas, Fata Morgana seems to struggle to realize them in a concise and meaningful manner. Running at just under half an hour, the film is forced to make several choices, and the director seems more intent on prioritizing the images than he is on the narrative. There isn’t much focus on a particular character, and we aren’t entirely sure whether this film is a documentary or a fictional piece (and it doesn’t have the nuance to be a film that blurs the boundaries between the two). There isn’t much room for Alabdulaa to make it clear where this film falls on the spectrum. It consists mostly of introductions to several different themes, and we anxiously wait for these disparate ideas to come together to create something meaningful, which is not entirely the case by the time we reach the end. It isn’t entirely wasteful, since there are valuable elements embedded throughout the film, but it doesn’t feel like it has the space to unpack many of the more compelling elements. However, Alabdulaa does choose to focus on some aspects over others, so it would have been possible to either elide certain elements or choose to develop the more concrete ideas, especially since one of the notable shortcomings of this film is that it is slightly too vague, spending more time on abstract ideas than was perhaps necessary or appropriate. It has a strong conceptual framework, it just becomes too enamoured with the idea of an ambiguous, stream-of-consciousness style of filmmaking, which forces the more bespoke aspects to fall by the wayside far too often.

Ultimately, the problem here is that 29 minutes is not enough time for Alabdulaa to explore every idea that he introduces in Fata Morgana, which is why it feels like a slightly incomplete work. It isn’t clear whether this was designed to be perhaps a short version of a longer project that the director intends to expand on in the future, or if it was simply a self-contained work that doesn’t entirely capture its complex ideas with consistency, which is unfortunately a common trait amongst young filmmakers. This isn’t to disqualify Alabdulaa from having a strong future in the industry, as his visual skills are quite good and he is willing to experiment with form and content in a way that will be remarkable with some further experience behind the camera. Perhaps it is appropriate that this film bears this title, since from afar it looks beautiful and striking, but as we get closer we realize that it isn’t all it appears to be. If anything, Fata Morgana provides an opportunity for audiences to get acquainted with the director, and hopefully find enough value in this film to see that there is genuine promise, and that with more time and perhaps additional resources he will have the opportunity to create something remarkable. Short films don’t always need to be perfect, and some of them are useful as a way to experiment and toy around with various ideas – and either through revisiting these themes or using his unique vision to tell another story, it is obvious that Alabdulaa is capable of greatness. It just doesn’t come through quite as potently in this film, which would have benefitted from more time to develop the deeply fascinating themes, turning a solid effort into something far more compelling.