Great expectations shouldered by everyone in Sea Shadow
Since details of the latest Emirati feature film Sea Shadow were announced last May, the film backers and the press had high expectations for the project, set for wide release in cinemas today.
Not only will the US$1 million (Dh3.67m) film be a stepping stone to inspire a new batch of local filmmakers, it will also aid in putting the Emirati film industry on the map. Hence its high-profile premiere at the recent Abu Dhabi Film Festival, with the nation's media and public finally getting to see what all the fuss was about.
The film's two young stars, faced with the expectations of a nation, drew confidence from the material and the team that brought it to screen.
Neven Madi, 19, who stars as Kaltham, believes Sea Shadow will set a new standard for feature films from the Gulf.
"The film has the production skills and the bar will be raised," she says. "I do feel happy. It was a long shoot but it was done with a great crew and one genius of a director."
Directed by Abu Dhabi's Nawaf Al Janahi and produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, part of Abu Dhabi Media, the owner of The National, the film is a coming-of-age story about young love in the face of Emirati life steeped in customs and traditions. Set in a tight-knit coastal neighbourhood in Ras Al Khaimah, the story centres on Mansour and Kaltham, both 16, whose longing for each other has them traverse the country from Ras Al Khaimah to Abu Dhabi while learning some hard truths along the way. The 20-year-old Emirati actor Oman Al Mulla, who plays Mansoor, says the film is driven by a search for love; a human need that crosses cultural differences and is shared by all ages.
"My character Omar is a good boy and he listens to his elders," he explains. "His father and mother are all he has in his life. He loves them dearly, but he craves more affection from his mother who is a strong character, that is why he tries to find that affection elsewhere."
His search leads him to the stoic Kaltham, who feels socially imprisoned by the traditional values expressed in her conservative neighbourhood.
Al Mulla says playing the shy Mansoor was not too much of a dramatic stretch. "He is a regular guy, a lot like me," he chuckles. "I didn't have to do too much research for the character because like me he is calm, quiet and keeps to himself. Of course it was difficult at first, but I got a lot of help from the director and crew."
Al Mulla, who is making his film debut, puts the difficulty down to making the jump from the theatre stage to television screen.
His five-year acting career has seen him playing small parts in Emirati television dramas as well as participating in local theatre productions.
Al Mulla admits he found his early television experience far from smooth sailing.
"I was very nervous," he recalls. "And it was hard because while I knew about the roles, I didn't have a proper idea on how to bring those emotions to the camera. Eventually, with confidence, I became better."
However, understanding Sea Shadow could be his big break, Al Mulla took no chances and prepared with the diligence of a student. Before the shoot last year, he would turn off his phone each night and for two hours reread the script.
"I would also stand in front of the mirror and practise the different emotions the role would need," he says, before quickly adding, "that was inside a room and not in public!"
Originally from Syria, the 19-year-old Sharjah actress Madi established herself as one of the country's most sought-after talents, appearing in both local television dramas and films. Her acclaimed role in Bint Maryam won her critical acclaim as well as acting awards at the Al Reef Film Festival and the Gulf Film Festival.
But despite her already high profile, she also had to join Al Mulla in undergoing a thorough audition process, which saw her claiming the role from 250 candidates.
She describes her acting process as one where she fully inhabits the character as soon as she lands on set.
"It's nothing but the role and the next scene," she says. "Also, when I arrive at work, I only respond to the name Kaltham and I only use my real name once I leave."
Madi says her family life is quite different to the constrained atmosphere experienced by Kaltham.
"My parents were very encouraging," she says. "My mother is always with me (on shoots) and my father helps me read the scripts and explains the (film) contracts to me. My community is also encouraging of me as well."
But it's the embrace of the nation that the stars are hoping for.
Al Mulla says the film's success would vindicate the risky decision to have young actors lead such a momentous project.
"I really hope it does well," he says. "It will prove to people that I am an actor ... a good actor. It will open up doors for us all."