Zaineb Abdul-Nabi

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By Natalie Gadbois, Senior Arts Editor
Published April 7, 2014

It’s an old adage : When you get to the top, don’t forget the little people. Student director and LSA senior Zaineb Abdul-Nabi has already found her footing in film, but she certainly hasn’t forgotten the little people along the way.

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As a Screen Arts and Culture major, Abdul-Nabi applied and won the chance to join “Team Oscar” last fall, part of which included presenting Oscar statuettes to celebrities during the 2014 Academy Awards. While it’s easy to get caught up in the glamour of being at a show like the Oscar’s, Abdul-Nabi’s SAC background kept her grounded in what she values most: the inner workings backstage.

“I just love knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, because what you see on TV is always very put together,” Abdul-Nabi said. “So it was really interesting just to see how everyone collaborates together backstage.”

Humility and thoughtfulness: words that embody Zaineb and her philosophy toward film. Born in the Bronx as the youngest of four siblings, she pushed outside of the family’s comfort zone by leaving New York and coming to the University on an engineering scholarship. She wanted to be a doctor, so she decided to pursue biomedical engineering. But when her Engineering classes proved to be less fulfilling than she hoped, she took a SAC class on a whim.

“I took SAC 236, which is an introductory film course, and I loved it,” Abdul-Nabi said. “It was one of the first classes in my college career that, yeah, I had to stay up late writing papers, but it still was worth it and I still enjoyed staying up late to write those papers.”

She made the dramatic shift from engineering to SAC, crediting her family’s habit of watching old foreign films together as the catalyst for her interest.

“I always loved watching (old films), and now I’m learning how to make them.”

At the University Abdul-Nabi was involved with both the Muslim Students Association and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality — an activist group at the center of the UMDivest Movement. She worked with MSA to develop a media system in which their lectures and events could be viewed online, making the issues they discuss accessible to more than just Michigan students.

Though she hasn’t had many opportunities to make her own films yet, Abdul-Nabi strives to focus on simple examples of humanity rather than over-the-top production, once again remembering the little people, the ones backstage or behind the scenes. To apply for the “Team Oscar,” she has to submit a short film and essay. For her film she went to Eastern Market in Detroit, filming people’s faces and then focusing in on their hands, illustrating the depth that can be found in people’s everyday activities. The film wasn’t about the “hands” themselves, but about the stories that were carried in the hands.

“They didn’t talk about their hands,” Abdul-Nabi said. “But it’s just about the way we connect people to their hands and what hands can tell us about a person.”

As she begins envisioning her future after her time at the University, Abdul-Nabi values discovering an area of passion within the film industry — though she admits with a laugh that her first goal is just “surviving.”

“I really hope I can find something that I’m passionate about in the film industry and not just take the job just because it’s going to pay a bill or something,” she said. “I don’t want it to just be a weird job here and there — I hope that they kind of affirm my love of the regular people, the everyday kind of people.”