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Ahmed Khawaja and the Dilemmas of Multicultural Fluency

The diary films of the Abu Dhabi-based filmmaker reflect two contrasting ways of life and a cathartic exercise in self-reflection.

By Arts & Culture

Ahmed Khawaja and the Dilemmas of Multicultural Fluency

I first met Ahmed Khawaja in Cambridge, MA in the summer of 2011. The aftermath of a drawn-out breakup ousted me from my living situation in Allston and into a temporarily vacant room in a Harvard Square house shared by some my old college friends.

I had been aware of Ahmed for about a year at that point. His 2010 feature film “Kassandra With a K” was co-directed by Andre Puca (one of my old media studies professors from Emerson), and although Ahmed went to BU, Boston’s film community was small enough that everyone seemed to know of one another in some capacity.

“Kassandra With a K” had just screened at the Harvard Film Archive as part of a program featuring a handful of new works from other young local filmmakers that I knew. I missed the screening due to my move. However, a DVD copy of “Kassandra” sat around in my new living room for the next few weeks, and at some point Ahmed reared his shaggy head.

The two of us exchanged casual greetings while “Star Trek: The Next Generation” played in the background (we collectively binge-watched the show that summer while we ate free pizza taken out of The Upper Crust’s nightly trash piles). Ahmed eventually went on his way and I drifted back into heat-induced lethargy.

I met Ahmed for the second time a couple months later in New York. I had weaseled my way into a living situation with three other Boston transplants, but our new four-bedroom in Bed-Stuy was quickly wrested from us after we called a building inspector in an attempt to gain the upper hand on our new landlord. The property management was refusing to assess previously unseen structural damages that we spotted throughout the apartment upon moving in. The inspectors agreed that the apartment had sustained serious damage, and they condemned the entire building moments after walking through the door.

This is how I came to live with Ahmed Khawaja. Three days into New York we were already looking for a new place. We ended up finding a suitable six-bedroom apartment with another friend from Boston (who had coincidentally shown his film along with Ahmed’s at the Harvard screening), and we all found ourselves moving in the following month.

My friendship with Ahmed quickly blossomed over the course of the following months. Ahmed is an Indian that grew up in Abu Dhabi before going to school in the US, and his cultural dissonances are some of his most endearing qualities. He is perhaps the most film-literate person I’ve ever met, and his manner of speaking and carrying himself seems at times to have been drawn directly from the protagonists from the movies that he loves so much. He’s goofy in a slapstick way that’s reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy or Charlie Chaplin, but he speaks with a New York inflection straight out of the seventies. He romantically pines over women like a hopeless Woody Allen but he describes them like a sailor. And he always talks about filmmakers like he knows them personally, calling Vincent Gallo “Vinny,” for example.

Ahmed spent his mornings watching Hanna-Barbera cartoons and eating cereal in his kurta pajamas before changing into his denim jacket and baseball cap to catch a repertory screening at Film Forum or whatever was playing at IFC. Most nights we all got together to drink Carling’s Black Label and watch three or four episodes of SVU. Ahmed always mistakenly called it “SUV.” By his last few months in New York he was seeing movies every day, right up until his student visa finally expired and he was sent back to Abu Dhabi.

In less than a year we became attached to Ahmed as if he had been a lifelong friend, and his somber departure lingered in the air for weeks after he left. But, eventually things carried on as usual. It was summer, we had jobs and we found new apartment troubles to deal with.

Ahmed was back in Abu Dhabi permanently for the first time half a decade, living with his parents in a housing development outside of Dubai. His days of drinking, smoking and going out had effectively halted, and his communications with friends were suddenly limited to multi-paragraph Facebook messages and long-winded Gmail chats. We were all afraid that Ahmed was going to lose his mind out of loneliness and isolation.

Almost immediately upon arriving back in Abu Dhabi, Ahmed began posting short personal movies on his Vimeo. They were usually made in his room or around his house, and were typified by shots of Ahmed dancing by himself to songs playing from his computer and the various cats that live in and around his home. As time went on he began featuring his family in the videos, though his mother tended to appear the most. He would narrate things as he shot them and edit his pieces together into little vignettes about everyday living.

Ahmed’s project became increasingly complex as time went on. His shorts began encompassing multiple days-in-the-life, and the footage began to drift outside of his immediate home. He began incorporating footage he had shot years before and images from his friends’ movies.

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Ahmed eventually cut his first several diary films into one longer piece that he entitled “Many Little Movies.” The hour-long video illustrates his moves from Boston to New York to Abu Dhabi and the aftermath of the experience. He becomes increasingly insulated and introverted. He cuts his hair and shaves his beard, and his beer belly slowly tapers off. The movie ends on an extended shot of Baby, our cat that we used to share, staring out of our living room window toward the Manhattan skyline before stretching herself out and retreating back into the apartment.

Ahmed is unabashed in his filmmaking practice. His shots linger uncomfortably long, and his subjects often stare wordlessly back at him, as if to ask, “What exactly are you doing right now?” His mother frequently voices these concerns, asking Ahmed directly why he is filming her. “Just making home movies” is usually his response. In many ways, this is true. Ahmed’s films are marked by their lack of cinematic ambition or overt narrative momentum. That’s the point, really. Ahmed is a filmmaker caught between two contrasting ways of life, and his films are a cathartic exercise in self-reflection. At what point does he stop pulling out his old photographs from his top dresser drawer? Is it appropriate for him to secretly film his family’s daily prayer ritual, even if he doesn’t seem personally invested? Should he feel the need to prevent himself from swimming with his mother and brother just because she wants him to wear pants in the pool and not just his underwear?

Ahmed’s work has always ruminated on longing and sadness. “Kassandra With a K” is a semi-documentary experimental narrative that largely fictionalizes Ahmed’s real-life friendships and destined-to-fail crush on a real girl he knew at BU. “Film Festival,” a personal documentary that he created while working at the New York Film Festival works as a straightforward behind-the-scenes documentation of the creation of press materials for the festival, but its power derives from its unflinching portrayal of various actors and filmmakers (Willem Dafoe, Elizabeth Olsen, Antonio Banderas) as they uncomfortably sit for promotional photos and react to various cameras and eyes that are focusing on them.

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As of this writing, Ahmed’s work is being featured on the screening website NoBudge. The site, which has been featured in The New Yorker and Paste, was started in 2011 by filmmaker Kentucker Adley as a venue to feature the work of truly independent film artists. The month-long retrospective started with a re-release of Ahmed’s new cut of “Kassandra With a K,” and he will be premiering a handful of new diary films in the coming weeks.

I spoke with Ahmed for an hour to try to talk with him about his artistic process, but we ended up spending most of the time just talking about other movies. I eventually managed to ask him what his motivation has been behind his diary films.

“If you’re a comic book artist you keep drawing, you know? Your heroes, your superheroes, whatever. The reason I keep making diary movies is because it’s the only way I keep active you know? Keep practice going.”

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