x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Curtains open for Emirati auteur

Despite fierce competition from foreign films, a multitalented businessman has succeeded in getting his tragic tale of love and the supernatural screened in UAE cinemas, writes Hareth Al Bustani.

Majid Abdulrazak, left, on the set with the cast and crew of Bani Adam, his third film. Courtesy M A Film Productions
Majid Abdulrazak, left, on the set with the cast and crew of Bani Adam, his third film. Courtesy M A Film Productions

Hareth Al Bustani

Majid Abdulrazak, an Emirati furniture mogul turned filmmaker, is a man who gets things done. The UAE’s very own Takeshi Kitano; not only did he direct, produce, write, edit and star in his new film Bani Adam, but he funded it, too. Through his three diverse businesses, he raises money to pump into his true calling – most recently, spending Dh3 million on his newest film. Bani Adam is currently showing in cinemas across the country – a rare accomplishment among his peers. Most Emirati filmmakers, he says, struggle to even get their films made, let alone screened, because of difficulties securing funding.

Bani Adam revolves around a rich man called Sultan. While agonising over a mistake he made as a child, Sultan falls in love with a lady called Maha. Meanwhile, his greedy treasurer Khalil wants him to marry his daughter Maitha, so he can gain access to his fortunes. However, both Maha and Maitha love a third man, Salem. Further complicating the situation, an evil, manipulative ghost turns up to wreak havoc. Abdulrazak says this is a purely Emirati story; a tragic tale of love, manipulation and the supernatural. With a touch of comedy.

“It’s a long film at two hours and 10 minutes, but in a film, you have to build a story, you can’t just show the climax. It is a dramatic film full of action, and when I say action, I don’t mean fighting, I mean it’s full of drama; the guilt of a crime a man had committed when he was young, and then the doubts which others put in his mind about a woman he loves, and about his closest friend. You will be entertained, you will be excited and there is not a second of dullness or boredom in this film.”

Ultimately, the film concludes by reinforcing the role of Islam in Emirati values. “The basic moral of the film is that mankind can always commit mistakes but we have to follow the holy book and the teachings of the Prophet – and that will save us. Our culture is based off our religion, so you’ll notice it in most of the scenes.”

Religion is not the only Emirati cultural influence on the show – the plot incorporates a wide range of issues and values. Abdulrazak says this gives his film its uniquely Emirati identity.

“When we make films, everything around us influences what happens. For example, endurance horse races are very popular here, so I’ve put that in as a portion of the film. And then Indian and Pakistani workers have a role. Issues like two men loving the same girl, or two girls loving the same man, and how dishonesty can kill a relationship play a part, too. Then there is that ghost which gives you negative thoughts. So all these topics, whether it is social or cultural, are there in this film.”

The film is visually an Emirati film, too, with iconic locations painstakingly chosen all over the country; from the Saudi border to Dibba. “I’ve been very careful, because a film is not a sound, it’s a vision; visually, it should be very good. There is nowhere we have not left out; the mountains, the palaces, hotels, the central region of the UAE called Dhaid; we’ve worked hard on this. There is also a famous location called Shuweihat – just 60 or 70 kilometres from the Saudi border, farther than Sir Bani Yas, and Ruwais. There is an island where I have found a red mountain, like a cliff, which we use in the climax of the film.”

However, being such an uncompromisingly Emirati film places huge limitations on its success. This is a common problem Emirati filmmakers face, because the UAE market is tiny and the culture is unique within the wider Arab world. Abdulrazak says Hollywood and Bollywood are long-established powerhouses; over time, they have shaped the culture of mainstream cinema and are therefore able to transcend mainstream cultural barriers. He says Egyptian cinema has also built itself a regional audience over decades, but would be able to thrive off the 60 million-plus Egyptian market alone anyway. And while most of the Arab world can comfortably watch Egyptian films, Egyptians are reluctant to pay to watch an Emirati film at the cinema because they might not relate to the humour, music or acting styles.

“When an Indian film is released, more than 3,000 theatres in India show the film; plus another 1,000 theatres in other parts of the world. Hollywood is much bigger, much stronger – they’ve got the whole world. And unfortunately, locally in the Gulf, the audience are not much; there is a lot of choice of films and because of social issues, at least 70 per cent of locals would not attend a cinema – they find it very awkward. In the UAE and the Gulf, TV serials are very popular. It’s very easy for people at home in the evening to watch it with their families. But to go to a theatre and watch a film; for a lot of families it’s not an easy proposal to do that. Families are very traditional, orthodox. And the ones who go have so much choice between English, Indian – perhaps the other Arabic films. So our chances are quite dim.”

It costs a lot of money to achieve the production value necessary to screen a film in cinemas. Bani Adam cost Dh3 million despite Abdulrazak’s best efforts to rein in the spending. Ultimately, this issue is a career killer – if a film is a financial flop, its director is going to struggle to get their next one funded. Emirati filmmakers are effectively catering to a market that, by nature, dooms locally produced films to failure.

“There’s no shortage of interest within me and many other UAE filmmakers to make films but the fear of losing money is so frightening. In my case, I work on the film A to Z; I do it all myself for two reasons. One is the satisfaction I get from doing it. The second reason is that I need to save as much as possible, whenever possible. Post-production is 100 per cent me; when I’m editing, I sit with the operator, I’m the only person who’s with the actors during dubbing, I go to India and sit with the colour correction, special effects and sound effects people. I travel all around and ask my friends if I can use their locations, if it’s a hotel or a farm or a house. And in spite of doing all that, it’s still expensive.”

The film had a crew of roughly 35 – some are sourced from the South Indian film industry, and others from the flailing Lahore “Lollywood” industry. Abdulrazak says the film took two years to make, but he could have done it in one. However, cinemas further delayed its release, as their schedules were already packed with less risky Hollywood and Bollywood films.

“In some cases, they won’t even release your film – they say there is an audience problem. They would much prefer to have a Warner Brothers or Columbia film where they know the audience is there. In our cases, it’s always a bit risky. It is a shame, it is a big issue. I’m always scared that after all the trouble, my films will not be released because, for cinemas, it’s business – they’re not government, they’re not here to protect or support you, they have expenses, they have to maintain their cinemas and pay their rent. As far as the government is concerned, what can they do to support you? They help with permissions and stuff like that, but they’re not going to give you some money to shoot a film, they can’t tell the cinema owners to help you. So you don’t get any help, you have to do it on your own – with a big risk of it also not being released.

“Luckily, in my case I did manage to release it, but there are people who can’t release their films. It is a nightmare. I mean, can you imagine two years of your life – so much money is involved, so many people are involved and your imagination is involved – and the cinema owner says, ‘Forget it, you don’t have an audience’. And you just go to your room and watch your film yourself and cry over it.”