The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival has given SLO Review the opportunity to review some of the narrative and documentary feature films on its 2024 program schedule. Follow the links to purchase tickets to see these notable films for yourself.

The Raw, Exquisite Beauty of Life’s Spectrums

Mountain Boy, the directorial debut of Zainab Shaheen, is a sweet parable that educates its audience on the impact of the kindness of strangers and diversity across the vast scenery of the United Arab Emirates.

Shaheen based this feature film on the book The Boy Who Knew the Mountains by Dr. Michele Ziolkowski. Her goal, she says in her director’s statement, is to create a feeling of empathy and acceptance for others, “especially those individuals with autism.”

She certainly accomplishes that.

The protagonist is a little boy, Suhail, who is isolated and feeling misunderstood at the beginning of the narrative. He is overwhelmed by the feelings of others; making eye contact is uncomfortable; and his father has forced him from his home after years of profound grief and blaming his son for the death of his wife who lost her life in childbirth.

Suhail says, “I’m always lonely. People don’t understand me.”

Suhail’s wisdom seems to tell us to free ourselves from old habits if we’re looking for something new.”

When he embarks on an arduous journey to find his mother’s family—his family—it becomes apparent that, rather than causing death, Suhail brings life to the people he meets.

In a village without water, he points to an underground stream; where there are no fish, he reminds the fishing crew that there are plenty of fish and that one must simply travel farther to find them. Suhail’s wisdom seems to tell us to free ourselves from old habits if we’re looking for something new.

Suhail’s mind matches the natural world around him. He is both calm and serene and also sometimes overwhelmed by life’s storms, emotional for him and physically experienced through thunderous rainstorms and scorching sun.

Director Shaheen captures the raw, exquisite beauty of life’s spectrums, not only of the human mind, but of the light, color, and mountainous terrain of the UAE landscape.

There are cultural differences between the UAE and the west that may temporarily disrupt the story’s flow for westerners—women cover their faces in public; there is a strict divide in what is a man’s work and what is a woman’s; and it’s considered out of the norm for boys and girls to be friends.

If we remember, though, that we’re stepping into the world of this child, Suhail, and that we’re experiencing his life in a particular place and time—not ours but his—it’s easier to accept that we’re visitors invited into his sacred place.

Suhail finds his peace when his father asks for forgiveness and receives it from his son just as a violent sandstorm ends, and the community picks up the pieces of their village to rebuild.

Mountain Boy is in Arabic with subtitles, but if your children are old enough to read, it is a meaningful story that can lead to equally meaningful family discussions about opening our hearts to those who are different from us and appreciating our own differences.

:: Paula McCambridge

The California Premiere screening of Mountain Boy (run time 93 minutes) at the SLO International Film Festival is sponsored by Paul & Robyn Metchik.

Editor’s Note: Information about exclusive Q&A sessions following each screening of the film is now available.