Dead camels are scattered in almost every direction. More are slumped in the sand, a furry mass of twisted legs and neck, with open mouths and thirsty, outstretched tongues. Others haven't suffered such a dignified fate, and have been hacked to pieces. Around these sorry beasts walks a procession of exhausted-looking warriors, clad in dusty, tattered brown robes and helping lead the few camels that haven't succumbed to dehydration across a rocky landscape as the midday sun beats down.
After a few seconds the weary march is brought to a standstill as a man in knee-length shorts and a T-shirt bellows "CUT!" into a megaphone and the whole troupe stumbles back to their starting positions. We're by the sea in Qatar on the set of the forthcoming epic historical adventure Black Gold, and just a few metres from the parched soldiers stands a mass of cameramen, make-up artists, lighting specialists and other crew members. Thankfully, the dead camels are of the rubber variety.
Set in the 1930s, Black Gold is the adaptation of Hans Ruesch's 1957 novel The Great Thirst, and tells a fictitious story of the Arab peninsula just as oil is being found. In it, a dynamic young Arab prince finds his allegiance torn between two rival Emirs, one his conservative father and the other his modern, more liberal father-in-law. The result is a heroic adventure, with mighty battles, romance and expeditions across the sand dunes.
With a US$55 million (Dh202m) budget, and an impressive line-up of international stars, Black Gold, shot in Qatar and Tunisia, is being billed as an Arabian blockbuster.
In the director's chair, and sporting a khaki-coloured safari suit that almost perfectly matches his untamed white hair, sits Jean-Jacques Annaud, the renowned French filmmaker behind The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet and Enemy at the Gates. In front of the camera, Antonio Banderas and Mark Strong play the two Emirs, while Freida Pinto portrays the princess. The lead role of Prince Auda goes to the rising star Tahar Rahim, the French-Algerian actor who was propelled into the limelight by his performance in Jacques Audiard's award-winning 2009 film Un Prophèt.
"It was important to have the lead character as an Arab," says Ali Jaffar, the executive head of Quinta Communications' independent film division, which is co-producing Black Gold in tandem with the Doha Film Institute. "It's time that we had Arab heroes and here's a film that has Arabs showing bravery and courage."
Curiously, it was perhaps the world's most famous Arab actor, a man who rose to international stardom in Lawrence of Arabia, the film to which Black Gold is being compared, who was originally considered for the lead. Tarak Ben Ammar, the Tunisian film producer and media tycoon who heads Quinta Communications, first optioned Ruesch's The Great Thirst more than 30 years ago, with an eye on Omar Sharif for the role of Prince Auda. He took it to Paramount, which offered a percentage of the financing, but he couldn't find any support from Arab countries and the film was put on the back burner. Paramount eventually gave Ben Ammar the role of production co-ordinator when it shot Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia. The Great Thirst project remained all but forgotten until last year, when the Doha Film Institute signed up with Quinta as co-producers.
For Qatar, aside from Black Gold being the first major, international film shot in the country, it's an opportunity to help develop the local cinema industry and provide invaluable experience to Qatari filmmakers while building the infrastructure needed to support further big-budget titles. Of the hundreds of people working on the production, there are numerous Qataris in jobs ranging from production assistants to roles in the film.
"It's exciting to bring to a country a knowledge and a skill," says Annaud, taking time away from the director's chair as one of the warrior's contact lens is replaced and bottled water is handed out. "I've been interested in the Arab world for years and have been on vacation here many times. And here in Qatar, you have beautiful dunes, without any roads, perfect for shooting."
Before the shoot by the sea, almost four weeks had been spent in the Qatari desert at the spectacular dunes near Mesaieed, filming battle scenes involving hundreds of camels, horses and sword-wielding soldiers. Before the team moved to Qatar, three months had been spent filming in and around Ben Ammar's Empire Studios in Tunisia. The cast and crew were there when the Jasmine Revolution broke out in January, but the schedule was put back by only two days, with production having to work around the strict 5pm curfew enforced by the government.
While the timing of the film is almost unbelievable, with the events in Tunisia sparking off a period of extreme transition much like the one faced in the era of Black Gold, there's a very real buzz about the movie for many other reasons. It's a big-budget epic adventure based on real events in the Arab world, being produced by Arabs, financed with Arab money, shot in Arab countries and with an Arab actor in the lead role. And with Warner Bros and Universal Pictures on board as international distributors and big names such as Banderas and Pinto in the cast, the hope is that Black Gold can entertain audiences across the world with a story that finally shows the region in a positive light.
"This region has been portrayed very poorly by films from the West. That's the main reason I was very eager to do this movie," says Annaud as a rubber camel leg is dragged past. "I have no personal relationship with the Middle East, yet I feel this fascinating world is not depicted properly. All the western movies about the Middle East are about terrorists, but when I travel to these countries I only meet very hospitable people. This is a movie set in Arabia with very dignified characters who I hope are going to give a very different view of this world to audiences who are just unaware."
The world premiere for Black Gold is scheduled for this October at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Hopefully, the event will attract Annaud back to Qatar, along with Tarak Ben Ammar and the film's international names. But even if the stars don't come out to play, the premiere should be a celebration, not just for the emerging Qatari cinema business, but for the Arab film industry as a whole.