Nanny Culture documentary review: not exactly Mary Poppins

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Nanny Culture green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Unexpected, intriguing, and gently amusing look at a British nanny abroad in Abu Dhabi, from the culture clash to the very familiar spoiled kids.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It sounds more like something out of the Victorian era rather than the 21st century, but apparently British nannies are something of a status symbol among wealthy families in the United Arab Emirates. We’re talking seriously professional women with degrees who can earn up to £1,500 per week… though that’s not as great as it may seem at first, since they work “six days a week, twelve hours a day” (and sometimes don’t get that seventh day off, either, it turns out). Documentarian Paul James Driscoll — a Brit based in Abu Dhabi and making his feature debut with Nanny Culture — gives us a peek inside the home life of an Emirates family when he follows 30something Julie Mcilvenny from London to the UAE for her new job looking after the six kids of a professional couple.

The Al Hammadi family are unusual in allowing the filmmaker access to their home in a “very private” Arabic culture.

The Al Hammadi family are unusual in allowing Driscoll access — the nanny agency Julie went through was convinced that no family in this “very private” Arabic culture would let cameras into their home — so it’s debatable how representative Nanny Culture actually is of even well-off UAE home life. Still, this is a fascinating look at culture clash, including the surprise that comes when there aren’t as many differences as you might expect: Julie is able to wear her own Western-style jeans and T-shirts, even in public — no headscarves or even more concealing clothing required — though there are men who are aghast that she might want to politely shake their hand when being introduced. Julie is remarkably laid-back as she deals with the passel of nice but spoiled-rotten kids who are clearly desperate for some structure in their lives yet still, of course, resist corralling, as children are wont to do. And she retains her cool calm as she engages in a gentle battle of wills with the other household help — cooks and maids — who deem her insufficiently subservient to the boss and a bit too bossy with them.

Nanny Culture Abdullah Al Hammadi
14-year-old Abdullah can barely rouse himself from his videogames to speak with the exciting foreign film crew visiting his home.tweet

Driscoll, as if echoing Julie’s attitude, has a casual approach to documenting what he’s seeing, injecting his own questions to his subjects occasionally and letting us glimpse a bit of behind-the-scenes stuff, which lends Nanny Culture an even more truly authentic feel than a more formal documentary would, as well as an air of gentle amusement. But the film does seem to only just scratch the surface of Julie’s experience, barely hinting at her isolation from her husband and children, who are also in the UAE, in another city, and whom she barely sees. I’d love to hear more from Julie’s nanny friends in Abu Dhabi, other 30something British women, not all of whom seem to be in pleasant situations like Julie’s. And the strange status of the nanny in the Al Hammadi household, not quite servant yet not quite part of the family either, is begging for more examination.

That I wanted more is, if nothing else, a good indication of how unexpected and intriguing Nanny Culture is.

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