Many people would claim to be cat lovers, but very few would sacrifice as much as one man has for the furry creatures.
The scene opens at the market, where fresh fish are being dutifully prepared: they are removed from their ice packing, descaled, cleaned, chopped and weighed. Money changes hands before a large bundle of fish-filled plastic bags are loaded into the trunk of a car. As another evening draws in, one customer sets off on his daily two-hour drive to begin his work.
The debut film of Emirati national Rafed Al-Harthi, Feeding 500, follows the endeavors of a man who has, over the past fifteen years, exhausted both his time and money on feeding stray cats in various neighborhoods of Abu Dhabi.
At one point in the film, the man who feeds the cats, an Indian immigrant named Siddiq who works as a sales supervisor in the city, is in his car, listening to the cricket on the radio, and complains: “I like watching the cricket . . . but I have no time.”
From of his humble salary of AED 7,000, Siddiq spends 6,000 on his arduous daily feeding routine—4,000 of which goes on fish alone. He has had taken out bank loans to keep up with the rent on his apartment and to allow him to send money home to his family in Kerala, India. He is now in debt, he says on camera, yet he continues to feed the cats.
It may sound like a strange premise for a film. But the intriguing, tragi-comic nature of Siddiq’s story earned the twenty-minute documentary three nominations at this year’s UK Encounters Short Film and Animation Festival. It was the first Emirati film to be chosen for the awards festival—a qualifier for the Oscars and BAFTAs—and the only Arab film chosen from 2,372 entries this year. Though it missed out on the top prize, the film received a Special Jury Mention Award in the Best Documentary category.
The film’s twenty-five-year-old director, who also works as a professional presenter of his own show, Min Al-Khater, on Abu Dhabi TV, was first drawn to Siddiq’s story after reading an article about him in the local newspaper. “I read the story and I loved it,” he tells The Majalla, “then I thought hey, why don’t [I] do a movie about his life?”
“I was looking for [Siddiq] for a long time . . . five to six months.” says Harthi. “Then I found him all of a sudden.” Harthi was in his car, stopped at the traffic lights discussing his mission to find Siddiq with a friend, when out of the corner of his eye he spotted a man feeding cats in the street. Harthi approached the man, and he turned out to be the Siddiq. But the prospective star of his documentary was wary at first. “I sat with him for one month so he’d give me the green light. It was very hard to convince him—after one month he finally agreed,” Harthi says.
After receiving Saddiq’s approval to make the film, Harthi went straight to the Young Media Leaders program, run by Twofour54—an Abu Dhabi-based company established in 2010 that provides support and equipment for the development of Arabic media and entertainment content in the region. “I gave them the project. They said, ‘Ok, this is a great story,’ and put me a two month course on how to direct a movie.”
As a filmmaking novice, Harthi’s determination to secure Siddiq’s story was admirable, but is no surprise that gaining his trust took some time. Siddiq—whose cat-feeding mission began after he learned that the municipality was rounding up the animals and burning them—has been threatened on numerous occasions. His efforts are unpopular with the locals, who perceive the cats as a dirty nuisance. As Harthi says, “Abu Dhabi, like every community, wants to be clean and modern.” Siddiq also has a large number of cats living with him in his small apartment. “They are all over the place and all over the furniture. It is strange,” says the director.
“Any Indian person that sees Siddiq is probably wondering whether he has a family to support back home or not,” Harthi states early in the documentary. And this is the sad and slightly discomforting twist to Siddiq’s story. We find out later that he has a wife and an eight-year-old son at home in India; he has never met his son. In the film, Siddiq says, “I wish I could go back to India . . . but if I go back, I want to see that someone will take care of the cats.”
Siddiq is convinced that feeding cats is his destiny: “I’m feeding 500 cats, so I will go the heaven, inshallah. . . . It’s a destiny; its God’s decision to go there and do it.” Harthi asks if he ever feels lonely. “Yes,” is Siddiq’s response, “but because of them I don’t feel it that much.” Siddiq’s determination to save the lives of these stray cats is perhaps best summed up when he is asked what he would do if he stopped feeding them for one day: "I cannot even imagine. I didn't even think about that.”
In the film, Harthi poses a question: “Is it worth giving up a community, kids and wife for cats?” He is himself torn as to what to think about Siddiq’s actions: “I thought he was strange, but then I saw all the cats running to him, it was really something else,” Harthi tells The Majalla.
The filmmaker is still in contact with his subject, and they have now become friends. Reluctant to share his opinions of Siddiq, Harthi instead quotes the man: “It’s between me and my cats. Someone will always judge me.” The positive reaction to Harthi’s first-ever film suggests that he has a bright new career ahead of himself. But Harthi claims he was drawn to make the film because of the uniqueness of this particular tale above all. Whether or not he will make another documentary is entirely dependent upon, he says, “If I find a new story.”