Future looks bright for young Emirati filmmaker Abdulla AlKaabi.
AlKaabi's philosophy on film holds hope for future
"I want to change my life," intones Jean Reno, his mineral voice characteristically enigmatic. This is the opening line in the teaser for The Philosopher, a short film by the young Emirati filmmaker Abdulla AlKaabi that will premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival this week, and it is emblematic of AlKaabi's own remarkable journey.
This quiet, polite young man, the sort of person who must very often be described as a credit to his mum, has gone from a childhood renting films from the local video shop in Fujairah, through a spell doing TV work in Dubai, to Paris, where he has directed Reno and a team of film professionals who are veterans of the sets of, among others, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Luc Besson.
That's some achievement for a 24-year-old who is still a student of the fine arts at the International Film School in Paris. But while he admits to being in awe of the talents with whom he has been working, he appears sanguine about the extraordinary events of the past year - never mind the two feature films he has planned with his producer, Cyril Deleye, for next year.
When we spoke in Paris back in October, his fellow students were returning from their summer breaks, and had just started to hear about what AlKaabi had been doing over those months. "They're happy, of course they are," he says sweetly, resolutely refusing to gloat over his good fortune, which came about, as things do, through a mixture of talent, connections and sheer coincidence - or what some might term destiny.
"Cyril is a friend of mine, from Dubai, but we actually met in Paris, and he started off asking me, what you would do for a film, so I proposed this story by Charlie Fish that I love, and he said, OK, so adapt it into a script and let's see where it goes from there. It took me two months to write it, with the guidance, of course, of Deleye and my classmates."
So how did something that started out as a simple educational exercise set by an encouraging friend turn into what Deleye describes as the biggest short-film production in France in 2010?
Well, that's where the stars aligned in a way that no one could have predicted.
"I was doing the screenplay as just a way for me to exercise my muscles in writing, so I wasn't even sure whether we were going to produce it or not. I finished the screenplay and I showed it to Cyril and he said, 'This is a very good screenplay; maybe you should contact the author and get the rights for it.'
"So I called Charlie and he was very good about it, said go ahead, just credit me in the film. Cyril thought, 'I want to produce this on a big budget, with world-class production and I want you to direct it,' and it was an opportunity from heaven. We shot it on a 35mm, we had the best grip in the whole of Europe, we had mostly the crew of the French director Luc Besson. My script girl was 80 years old; she'd worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles. The assistant director has worked for the top directors in the world."
That is a pressure under which other men might have crumbled. "Yes, I was quite pressured but I would do it all over again in a heartbeat," says AlKaabi.
It's learning on the job taken to an extreme, and it certainly beats sitting in a lecture hall. Deleye, a film veteran of 23 years whose contacts yielded most of the crew and whose experience provided great support for AlKaabi, says: "Sylvette Baudrot was the script woman for Welles, Hitchcock, Luc Besson, Roman Polanski. She's an icon in France; she's 80 years old, but she doesn't want to stop, so she did us a big favour. Those kind of people don't do that. But it's because of friendship, relationships - everyone said, 'OK, Cyril, you believe in Abdulla, we believe in you. And Sylvette when he met her, he was like, 'Cyril, are you sure? That woman is old! Will she be able to keep up with us? After one day, he said, 'Cyril, Sylvette is amazing.'"
Of course, while film industry types will be impressed with having Sylvette Baudrot as the script supervisor, the thing that makes the film interesting to the public is the involvement of the legendary French actor Jean Reno. The one thing that still renders AlKaabi almost speechless is the fact that he has worked with this bona fide star on his first large-scale project.
"Jean got the script - he was in the south of France - and he called and said, 'I love it, and I'd love if you joined me for lunch.' So we travelled to Avignon, had lunch with him - it felt just surreal - and right there he said yes, I'm going to do the project, I love it, and I think we're going to do a good film, a good project together."
Reno is in Dubai for the festival, too, supporting the film in a way that a student director could hardly have expected.
"He's unbelievable," says AlKaabi. "He's one of my masters and maybe the only master I have right now because I was so overwhelmed as to how humble and down-to-earth and kind and professional and supportive this star is. He was there giving me tips and points and [wondering] how can we find my style in directing. He was great."
AlKaabi's success so far sounds like a narrative of benevolence: his parents' support in his Paris education and career choice; Deleye's belief in his young protégé and willingness to put his money where his mouth is; Fish's kindness in allowing him the film's rights merely for a credit; Reno's willingness to take a chance on a short student film and to help guide an inexperienced director. But to believe that would be to underestimate the roles of talent, hard work and passion in this story.
Deleye believed in AlKaabi, but he is a businessman after all, investing large quantities of his own money in the project, and it was only when he saw an excellent screenplay that had taken two months of graft to complete that he decided to push on with the film. Equally, Reno has a huge reputation as an actor of integrity, and it was after reading the script and meeting AlKaabi that he agreed to take part. And the vastly experienced crew? It's the film business; it's a job. Short films are not about about making money: they're a showcase, seen mainly by film professionals and fanatics at film festivals around the world, and everyone has a reputation at stake.
Says Deleye: "I was scared on the first day because I never saw him directing an actor, and it's always with actors and directors that one of them wants to be the boss on the set. And then when you have a big superstar, it's scary. And after the first or second shot Abdulla was the boss, and he knows what he wants exactly. Everyone, the art directors, script girl, assistant, everyone was working at what he said. It's the first time I'd seen someone so quiet direct and the crew loved him, just loved him."
"You can direct and be quiet too," interjects Abdulla with a smile. And while he is certainly a self-contained, slight figure, this is a man whose passion for film runs deep. Although he laughs, saying, "I am 24 years old; to me, the 1990s is old," his thirst for film seems insatiable, his interests ranging from European cinema and Hollywood to Bollywood and old Arabic films, mainstream to art house. "I change every week. I love Almódovar, Sofia Coppola, Kubrick, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan... I also have the privilege of being able to watch Arabic films and to be able to tap into this rich bank of films from Egypt and Lebanon, and it's not only a matter of language but it's also a matter of understanding the themes."
He is dismissive, though, of modern Arab cinema. "It's becoming so commercial; it's just stripped of art. Nobody goes to the cinema now. Nobody goes to watch an Arabic film; it's really sad. I don't know what happened. If you look at the films from the 1980s, 1970s, 1960s, 1950s, they're just like works of art, and now it's different.
"Of course, artistic films are still there, but they don't get exposure, they don't get the turnover, they don't get the people, the audience, they do not get the attention that they should be getting. There are some remarkable artistic directors across the Middle East, but I'm talking about the infrastructure of helping them. Why do we have stupid slapstick comedy films, the kind of movies getting so much attention and coverage? I have no idea what happened to the cinema of the Arab world."
This despairing tone sounds odd coming from a 24-year-old success story, but though he says that this is why he will be concentrating on international cinema for now (The Philosopher is in English and will be dubbed into French), he remains positive about the future of the Middle Eastern scene.
"I think we're in an age in the Middle East where we're starting from the beginning, starting all over again, because in the late 1990s, early 2000s, things just went down in cinema. But I think now with all the film festivals and the film schools that are opening there, the infrastructure for international productions in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I think they're going to revive it."
And this young director with big hopes might just be the man to help them do it.
The Philosopher screens at DIFF on December 17, 8pm; December 18, 7.30pm; December 19, 1 pm.