Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 July 2020

'Cabin Fever': Abu Dhabi plays starring role in South African film shot entirely via video call during lockdown

Actor James Cunningham, who lives in the UAE, plays one of the main characters

Actors from Wales to South Africa to Abu Dhabi were involved in the making of the movie.
Actors from Wales to South Africa to Abu Dhabi were involved in the making of the movie.

Abu Dhabi's skyline has played a starring role in a new feature film shot entirely in lockdown.

Directed by South African filmmaker Tim Greene, the movie, entitled Cabin Fever, was shot in six locations around the globe during the coronavirus pandemic, when most of the world was in lockdown. There was no crew, and each of the actors was charged with filming themselves via phones or laptops, without the use of props (unless it was something they could find around the house). For that reason, it also cost virtually nothing to make.

South African actor James Cunningham plays Andrew in the film, which is set in 2021 amid a second, deadlier wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cunningham was cast after responding to a Facebook call from Greene for actors. He'd moved to Abu Dhabi full-time in January, after his wife had been working as a teacher here for three years, and was finding work hard to come by.

James Cunningham is a South African actor who now lives in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy James Cunningham
James Cunningham is a South African actor who now lives in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy James Cunningham

Cunningham has primarily worked as an actor in theatre, but has also dabbled in film and television, and in 2013, played a small role in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, alongside Idris Elba.

Cabin Fever's plot follows Andrew's family, and the fallout from his ex-wife contracting and then slowly dying from the virus. His three children are spread all over the world, and his second wife is desperately trying to hold the family together with the help of many internet calls.

The movie takes on a "confessional" angle, Cunningham says, as all of the conversations take place to camera, as the fictional characters communicate over Skype or WhatsApp calls.

"There's a lot of family drama going on. It's quite a dynamic story," Cunningham tells The National.

And filming was equally reliant on the use of digital media. The shoot took place over 34 days with actors in New York, Brussels, Wales, Abu Dhabi, Cape Town and Canberra, filming themselves and sending footage daily via online data transfer applications.

"We would have rehearsals on Zoom and Tim was directing us on Zoom, and then we'd go away and film ourselves. It was hard to begin with, because I had to imagine the other person's lines and say mine to myself."

Which is why Reem Island, where Cunningham lives, also gets a starring role. He shot his scenes inside his apartment, and there is plenty of the outside skyline to take in, too.

Though the film was originally supposed to be a short, Cunningham says the team quickly realised it had the potential to be more. Greene would then "write for our situations", and would often pen the next day's lines the day prior, sending them late at night for them to be performed hours later.

'Cabin Fever' was produced in 34 days, and cost nothing to make. 
'Cabin Fever' was produced in 34 days, and cost nothing to make. 

"He was really smart in creating visual variety," Cunningham says.

"Some people were on laptops, some on the move with a cellphone, all of it is spoken to the camera so it's unlike any other movie, so you get a real glimpse into everyone's personalities."

The film is now complete and is in post-production. Cunningham has seen the final version, which is 90 minutes long, and is surprised at its quality, calling it "something special".

And whereas the actors were all originally involved without payment, Cunningham says if the film is sold to a major distributor, Greene would work out a payment percentage for all the actors.

"The impetus was let's keep ourselves busy, let's keep ourselves creative and try not to go crazy [in lockdown]," he says.

"I think it's pretty good. It's definitely hugely relative and hugely topical."

The film currently has a distributor and is being marketed to streaming services.

Updated: June 28, 2020 01:34 PM

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