x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A visit to the RAK set of the UAE's first major horror movie

The title of the first major horror movie to be filmed in the UAE is so sensitive it isn't mentioned on the set.

The crew sets up for another scene of Djinn.
The crew sets up for another scene of Djinn.

It's a predicament most filmmakers are unlikely to have faced. How exactly do you go about making a film without ever mentioning its name on set? For those working on the forthcoming horror film Djinn, this issue was an important part of the process, especially during three days spent filming in the historic village of Al Jazirat Al Hamra near the city of Ras al Khaimah. Because to mention the word 'djinn', according to beliefs still held widely in the area, might well conjure up the mischievous spirits themselves. "Everyone is taking it very seriously," said the producer Daniela Tully, speaking from the set on the third and final day of shooting in the village. "Even the director totally believes in it. We had to put tape over the film name on his chair."

The man sitting in this chair, as it turns out, is Tobe Hooper, the somewhat legendary director of horror classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. Tully says that Hooper is offered more than 30 scripts a week. "When he signed up to work with us, he said that he thought Djinn was the best script he'd seen in years."

The film - the first horror movie from Imagenation, the film production unit of Abu Dhabi Media - is set in the UAE in 2015 and centres around a couple who move into a luxury high-rise, supposedly built on the site of an abandoned fishing village in RAK. After a while, thecouple begin to realise that their neighbours might not be entirely human, and the film flashes back to a few years earlier, when an American backpacker visited the village and was introduced to the concept of supernatural spirits by two Emiratis. He was sceptical about their existence and his attitude enraged the djinn, who wound up possessing his body with bloody consequences. It is this scene we're just about to watch being filmed.

With everyone hushed into silence, a Canadian stunt artist in an orange T-shirt stands atop an old fort building in the village, just about 10 minutes drive from the city of Ras al Khaimah. Eventually, after a lot of shouts and checks from the assembled crew at the bottom, the cameras roll. The stuntman - who flew in simply for this scene - begins waving his arms wildly as if unable to control himself and then falls headfirst, roughly 35 feet to the ground, and landing with a loud bang. A cheers goes up, he's OK and there isn't need to reshoot his fall. Interestingly, cushioning his landing was a pile of cardboard boxes. Despite countless advancements in film production techniques over the years, it seems that the humble cardboard box is still the perfect landing mat for stunt falls.

A while later, with the boxes cleared away and the stuntman swapped with Paul Luebke, the British actor playing the possessed tourist, it's time for a close up of his impressively mangled face (the result of several hours in make-up). "Can we get some more blood on the walls," we hear screamed from the director's tent.

"This is actually one of the only gory scenes," says Tully, adding that she considers Djinn more of a supernatural thriller than true horror. And Hooper, who she says was top of her list of directors, is a master of such filmmaking. "If you notice with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, there's not much blood, it's all in your head. Tobe was a trend setter with this."

With Djinn, the first horror in both Arabic and English, the hope is to start a new trend of Arabic horror. "With the exception of a truly awful film from the 1980s called Wishmaster, I've never heard of a film covering the subject of these spirits," says screenwriter David Tully, who also teaches film writing at Dubai's SAE Institute.

According to Tully, the idea for the story came to him when an Emirati friend took him to the fisherman's village knowing that he wrote horror scripts. "I love discovering new angles and coming to a region and talking about the local stories. Hearing about this, I just found it fascinating, before even thinking about writing something." Tully says he could definitely feel something in Al Jazira Al Hamra, but the story came to him when he saw residential towers being built in the distance.

Aside from the people falling off old forts and mischievous spirits, the message within Djinn is one very connected to the UAE, looking at the way traditions and heritage are sometimes overlooked in the quest for modern development. "We want to show the beauty of the old sites, like this old village," says Tully.

But to avoid making another Wishmaster, it was essential that the subject was approached in a respectful manner, with plenty of research undertaken. He spoke to people in the area about djinn, and says that "at first people were reticent, but when they saw that we wanted to show respect and make the film right, they gradually began to talk more about it."

On set throughout the production is the local filmmaker Mohammed Al-Otaiba, who says he's been acting like a cultural consultant, as well as picking up invaluable filmmaking experience by working alongside Tobe Hooper. "I try to help make sure that the local values are respected, as well as any sensitivities that revolve around the supernatural," he whispers as another scene is shot in the background. "They tend to come to me when they need clarifications on things."

Adding to the authenticity of the film is the amount of regional talent appearing in the cast. Khalid Laith, soon to be seen in The Devil's Double, and the up-and-coming Lebanese actress Razane Jammal have the lead roles. Among those representing the UAE with supporting roles are Ahmed Abdullah and City of Life's Saood Al Kaabi. Many of the local faces were found through Imagenation's www.emiratifilmstar.com portal, which was launched last year.

While a release date for the film is yet to be announced, there are already some talks about a sequel and prequel. "The plan behind it is to build up a franchise," says Daniela Tully. "This is why we have brought in such an acclaimed international director. I truly believe he is someone who can set the benchmark." And, should Tobe Hooper set the benchmark for a new genre of Arabic horror, the idea is to then involve local directors in the follow up films.

"It'd be great to do something in 3D," muses scriptwriter David Tully, who admits he hasn't actually started on any scripts yet.

And with the warming thought of 3D spirits scaring the daylights out of cinemagoers, it's time to leave the set. For the 70 or so cast and crew, filming moves next to a purpose-built indoor studio in Dubai, with the city also used for some of the exterior shots for the part of the film based in 2015. Even with Dubai perhaps not holding the same supernatural beliefs as Ras al Khaimah, the 'no djinn' rule will most certainly apply on set.

"To be honest, it's not really that important that you don't say the word," admits cultural consultant Al-Otaiba, ruining the satisfaction of getting through an entire day referring only to "the D word" or, Macbeth-style, "The Ras Al Khaimah Film". "It depends on one's level of faith, but what's important is that you don't show disrespect."