x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Hollywood star Navid Negahban gives local film industry a boost with 51

A film starring Hollywood actor Navid Negahban has been shot in Abu Dhabi this month.

The Hollywood actor Navid Negahban in rehearsal for 51 at New York Film Academy. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National
The Hollywood actor Navid Negahban in rehearsal for 51 at New York Film Academy. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National

A film starring the Hollywood actor Navid Negahban is being shot in Abu Dhabi this week.

Negahban, famous for his role as America’s most wanted enemy, Abu Nazir, in the TV show Homeland, is shooting for the locally produced short 51.

“When I read the script I saw potential in it,” says the Iranian-American actor at a rehearsal in the capital a few days before shooting.

“I felt it was a good opportunity to come here, shoot something and take it back and show what we are able to do in this region.”

The plan is to develop the film into a TV series, he says.

Negahban, who is also known for his recurring appearances on the TV show 24, describes the film as something between The Bourne Identity and Contact, with the protagonist being pulled in all directions, not knowing who he can trust.

“In reality, each of us meet people along the way who are messengers, giving us guidance. I’ve always believed if I pass by someone twice, I need to walk up and say ‘hi’ to them.

“Sometimes we are too busy with ourselves. We don’t hear the messages or receive the gifts that are being handed to us. This script is around that concept,” Negahban says.

The 20-minute thriller, written by the UAE-based American expatriate Michelle Nickelson and co-produced by Mena CineFinance and the Abu Dhabi film production company Trucial States Entertainment, is being shot in Abu Dhabi over five days. It is being filmed in three locations: Abu Dhabi International Airport, Emirates Palace and the desert.

If 51, which was funded through local crowd-sourcing, becomes a television series as planned, Nickelson says they will shoot the pilot in the UAE. “It would be really good for the community,” she says.

Negahban was asked to star in the film partly because of his Iranian background, she says.

“I thought it would be a cool idea since he’s an actor from this region who’s made it in Hollywood. He’s somebody who’s managed to get to the next level.”

Nickelson, who has lived in the UAE for many years, has recruited 11 Emiratis to work on the film with her, which she says is a “record number”. The local team covers most areas of the filmmaking process, including make-up, co-production, music, still photography and acting.

“It’s good for the cast to meet someone who’s successful like Navid to figure out where they can go from here,” Nickelson says.

The Dubai-based actress Mylène Gomera, who stars opposite Negahban, is one of the people who stands to benefit from the international attention that 51 is gathering.

The Huffington Post already mentioned it as part of its Gulf Film Festival coverage.

The model and photographer Omar Borkan Al Gala – who was recently named in social media as one of the three UAE men allegedly removed from a public event in Saudi Arabia by religious police for being too handsome – was meant to appear in the film but has pulled out because of other commitments.

According to Nickelson, it is “tough” for aspiring Emirati actors.

“We are so far from LA. It’s not like producers are going to come here from LA to look for someone; there are enough character actors in Hollywood to play an Arab.”

She says having Negahban in the film could help turn things around.

“When you have an actor who’s really hot at the moment it helps, just by association. More people will see what they’ve done, so it’s an opportunity for them to get to an international level.”

Negahban, who shot a commercial in Dubai a few years ago, says he does think there are opportunities in the UAE because “people here are very talented. If they step back and look at what they’ve got, they see they have every-thing they need to get recognised. The stories can come from here. Why do they have to come from Hollywood?”

According to Negahban, the meaning of success is “not that your face is on the posters and that everyone knows you on the street. A successful person is someone who is doing what makes him happy and does not wait for someone to hand it to him.”

The Emiratis behind the scenes and in front of the camera

The bad guy

The Emirati Sameer Al Obadeli, 35, who is co-producing the film through Trucial States Entertainment, has an acting role, which he says was a “complete fluke”, adding: “I was just lucky to be there at the audition and rehearsals.”

Even though the father-of-two works full-time as a psychiatrist, he has always wanted to be an actor. “But there is no industry here, so I’m trying to be a part of the pioneering process.”

Trucial States Entertainment, which Al Obadeli started a year ago with two other partners, the Emirati brothers Faisal and Ahmed Al Nowais, is the first Emirati film production company at twofour54. It does mostly corporate videos, but is dabbling in animation, short films and music production. The company is soon starting an initiative to help local filmmakers produce films for free.

“We want to be a part of the community and develop it,” Al Obadeli says.

51 is Trucial States’ first international project and Al Obadeli’s first appearance in a Hollywood movie.

“It is a great opportunity to be part of this film with such a big star, who is at his peak right now. We are all looking forward to meeting him almost more than acting in the film,” he says.

The shopkeeper

Ibrahim Al Khemeiri, who has a speaking role as a shopkeeper opposite Negahban, says he sees this opportunity as a stepping stone to achieving his dream.

“My aspiration is to be the first Emirati to win an Oscar,” he declares.

The 22-year-old, who is currently an intern at twofour54’s Creative Lab, says he was “very excited" about working with an actor of Navid’s calibre.

“Especially as an Emirati, working with international talent is rare.”

When he was growing up, his sisters called him the “Chandler of the family”, a reference to one of the characters on the American sitcom Friends.

But it took a little soul-searching before Al Khemeiri finally found his calling.

“I was studying finance before but I was not good with numbers. So I decided to pursue what I’m passionate about.”

He still has a long way to go before the golden statue is firmly in his grasp, but with his New York Film Academy acting degree, from both Los Angeles and Abu Dhabi, he is on the right path.

“Inshallah, it’s in the works,” Al Khemeiri says.

The make-up artist

Nouf Al Jahdhami, 19, specialises in bruises and blood. It’s a gory skill to put on a CV, but it works.

The make-up artist has been hired to make two of the characters in 51 look bruised.

The Dubai-based Emirati has done make-up for a few award-winning UAE films. But 51 is the biggest one to date.

“I’m very excited to be a part of the film and with such a great cast.”

She says it was a challenge to do gory make-up “especially where the bones are exposed and you have to make it look fleshy”. Her interest in biology and anatomy helped, she says, “so it’s not really disgusting; I know it’s not real”.

Al Jahdhami uses industrial materials such as latex and liquid silicon to create the beaten-up look.

In the preproduction phase, she creates a face or body chart to show how the make-up is expected to look.

“Every time you do something it’s a new learning experience,” she says.

The extra

The American-born Dedra Stevenson, who has lived in the UAE for 22 years and is a naturalised Emirati, is an extra in the film.

“I think they will have me and another friend sitting in the background as the main characters rush by escaping the danger,” says the Zayed University media instructor.

She is also a screenwriter and is currently writing her own short film, Potluck, which she says is “coming up fairly soon”.

Being a part of 51 will be “lots of fun”, Stevenson says.

“I love having this chance.”

The manager

Another Emirati acting in the film is Abdulla Al Ghamdi.

When the 28-year-old was approached for the movie, he was “totally in. It was a window of opportunity, and I would never miss it.”

Al Ghamdi is no stranger to the world of entertainment. He currently hosts two shows on Abu Dhabi TV (the station is owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also owns The National) and has acted in an array of comedy sketches, short movies and other television shows.

51 is, however, his first Hollywood film. “It’s very cool,” he says.

Like Al Khemeiri, Al Ghamdi has a plan. “I would like to put the UAE’s name on the map. People need to know that we have something other than terrorists in this region. We have the quality that is up to the rest of the world’s standards. We need to show that … put it in the spotlight.” Al Ghamdi, who plays the role of a manager in 51, says the opportunity to act in a locally produced film with the likes of Negahban is one step closer to Tinseltown.

“It’s a dream to get to Hollywood for me. I will give it my all and I believe I can do that. I can nail it.”


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