The Letter Writer (2024)

The Letter Writer by Layla Kaylif is about the painful coming of age, emotionally and politically, for a boy and a country.

The Go-Between who fell in love

by Alexa Dalby

The Letter Writer

It must be difficult for a filmmaker these days to make a film in Dubai that doesn’t include its vertiginous modern skyscrapers. But The Letter Writer, set in 1965, before oil was discovered, manages it by keeping its point of view low level, filming only in what’s left of the old part and outside the museum. It is fascinating to see the sandy alleys of ‘old Dubai’ before it became fabulously wealthy.

The Arab Unity movement was growing violently fast throughout The Latter Writer: what was a (resented) British Protectorate in the then-Trucial States had not yet become part of the alliance of emirates, the UAE. This did not happen until after the British left later on.

The Letter Writer is about coming of age, both emotionally and politically, for a boy and a country. Its endearing young hero, student Khalifa (Eslam Al Kawarit), earns extra money as a street letter writer for people who are illiterate. He falls in love with a photograph of a smiley blonde Englishwoman Elli (Rosy McEwen) that one of his clients, an Indian shopkeeper (Muhammad Amir Nawaz), pays him to write formal letters in English to.

But the boy’s naive romantic imagination takes over. He quickly learns enough English from his teacher to write poetically to Elli. He watches Omar Sharif in snowy Doctor Zhivago and copies him, dressing inappropriately in furs. We see Elli’s reaction to his letters back home in England. Luckily for Khalifa, she is kind.

Meanwhile, the fight for Arab unity, the Arabic language and post-colonial independence grows. We see the effect of Khalifa’s changed behaviour on his family, the family of his girlfriend Noora (Marwa Al Hashimi) and their middle-aged slave Buthayna (Faisa Al Moutha). The traditional ways of life and the fishing village’s history of pearl trading are dying out in a country in transition.

It’s a rather clunky first film – though set in interesting times – made by a female director, Layla Kaylif, and a team that’s partly female. It understandably won an award at the Dubai Film Festival (though an Arabic title cannot be traced). But that was in 2015… it’s more timely now.

The Letter Writer premiered at the Dubai Film Festival and is released on Amazon Prime Video on 14 February 2024 in the US and 19 February 2024 in the UK.

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