Tackling the theme of evil and how dark forces have affected the region throughout the centuries might seem like an tough task for a 75-minute documentary film, but it was a challenge Emirati director Mansoor Al Dhaheri relished.
His film Little Sparta is currently screening in cinemas – but when he announced it on social media, he admits he was surprised by the reaction. It garnered an incredible 260 million interactions, according to the latest hashtag tracker from Instagram and Twitter.
“This really surprised me, and I’m really excited about it,” says Al Dhaheri, who made the film through his Abu Dhabi-based company, Al Kalema Productions. His film was mentioned by, among others, one of the UAE’s most popular tweeters, Sultan Al Qassemi, who has 476,000 followers.
“So many people out there want to be able to answer the same question I did, and they’re searching for the same answers,” says Al Dhaheri. “What’s the reason that we have all this evil here in this region?”
He tries to find the answer to this question by telling how various “coalitions” have formed over the ages in the region to repel enemy forces, from the Spartans in 431BC, to the current coalition war that the UAE and its allies are waging against ISIL and in Yemen.
Little Sparta tells its historical story in nine “chapters”, using pictures and documents as well as CGI and graphic videos to bring the historical civilisations to life.
“It starts with the story of Sparta and the victory of its small regiment over the Persian Empire, thanks to their training and determination, and moves into the emergence of Islam and its spread through the region and its surroundings,” says Al Dhaheri.
“From there, we got to the age of the radical extremists in this region and how, again, our little country with its brave men faced them.”
Moving into the contemporary age, the film gives a snapshot of the UAE’s development, highlighting “the most important factors of prosperity in the country as a result of the peaceful coexistence among members of the society, as well as the tolerance whose foundations were laid down by its rulers”, says Al Dhaheri.
The film’s title, Little Sparta, comes from the nickname given to the UAE by retired Marine General James Mattis, who ran the US Central Command from 2010 to 2013 against ISIL and is US president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for his secretary of defence.
“The name was given because, like the Spartans of long ago, we are a people small in number, who showed such bravery in executing these tough missions against extremists,” says the director.
He adds that he has always had a passion for history, and began looking through documents in the UAE’s National Archive Department four years ago to research the film. It took him and a crew of more than 100, from the US and India as well as the UAE, a year to complete once production started. He spent his spare time making the film while also working in his day job in the government sector.
“It was tough to handle all of this work in the time we had, but we pulled it off and we got a reaction that we didn’t expect,” he says.
The movie had its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival this month, where it was nominated for a Muhr Award.
Al Dhaheri, who honed his filmmaking skills at the New York Film Academy, is not afraid to tackle films with tough subject matter. Last year, he also directed short films titled Child Abuse and Neglected Wife.
“As a filmmaker, you shouldn’t have boundaries,” he says. “I have lifted the taboo on certain topics lots of times. I truly believe films reflect your society.
“I’m an Emirati filmmaker so I try to send our stories to the world. I tackle some really important true incidents, and this movie is the same.”
• Little Sparta is in selected cinemas now, and can be downloaded on iTunes and other digital services. A wider cinema release in the region is planned