The Turtle, a short film commissioned by the National Media Council for the World Expo 2012 in Korea, has become an international award-winning hit and its young Emirati star, an actor to follow.
Rise of the guardians
When the UAE took part in the Expo 2012 in Yeosu, Korea, no one would have foretold the global influence the country's participation would have outside the event itself.
Working within the theme The Living Ocean and Coast, the UAE's National Media Council (NMC) commissioned 13 short films, the most powerful being The Turtle - a film that highlights the UAE's efforts in protecting its environment.
Since its screening, the film has won the Silver Medal at the expo in Korea and the Golden Dolphin Award at the Cannes Corporate Media and TV Festival 2012. In September, the film was screened at the UAE Film Festival in Washington DC and is now being used in classrooms as far away as Japan to help educate children on environmental issues.
The young Emirati star of The Turtle, Ahmed Mohammed Ali Al Dhuhoori, who plays Ali, continues to capture the hearts of international audiences and scooped the Distinguished Character award during the recent Dubai International Film Festival.
The film follows the character of Ali and his subsequent heartbreak over the death of Pearl, a turtle that has been observed for more than 40 years. On learning that Pearl died after ingesting a plastic bag in the water, Ali pushes for a ban on non-biodegradable plastics in the Emirates - a policy the local government has now endorsed.
Since it was uploaded on YouTube, the film has had thousands of hits.
Al Dhuhoori was also chosen to represent Dubai's World Expo 2020 bid through two promotional videos. For the 14-year-old student, seeing himself on the monitor while shooting for The Turtle proved both exciting and surreal.
"I always wanted to act, but when I looked at myself I said: 'It's impossible.' Then I tried hard because nothing is impossible in life and nobody can stop you from doing what you want to do," he says. "Now I know I can do anything."
The executive producer Peter Vine says a full-length feature film inspired by The Turtle is now being developed as a private venture for commercial international release. Filming is set to begin in late 2013.
"The message of The Turtle is clear: the future of the planet is in the hands of young people and people like Ahmed can make a difference. We wanted people to walk away wondering what they, too, can do," says Vine. The film, a mix of fantasy and reality, was shot over a period of 10 days across the UAE. The filmmakers felt "the UAE deserves to highlight serious issues that it is addressing. Organisers wanted worthwhile educational aspects, not just entertainment, and banning plastic bags in the UAE seemed something to highlight," says Vine.
"When you make a film, the objective is to engage and excite the audience. When creating a story, it's saying 'we want your attention' and we grabbed the audience's attention by showing, at the beginning, people on a mission to rescue the turtle," he says. "We took them from the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah to Musandam and we had a helicopter over Abu Dhabi - so we shocked the audience into suspense and the story sneaks up on them."
It took Al Dhuhoori just two days to prepare for his role.
"Before the movie, and before I started acting, I knew the changes in the weather and effects on the atmosphere, so I started telling myself about the ecosystem. If you destroy turtles, you destroy most of the ecosystem and that's the goal of the movie because that's a disaster," says Al Dhuhoori. "In the UAE, many said they saw people in the audience crying because they know turtles are in danger. I know there will be more new laws and changes as a result of The Turtle movie and the changes will be worldwide."
As for now, Al Dhuhoori is focusing his efforts on school, promoting The Turtle and Dubai's bid for the World Expo 2020.
"I would also love to work on more film projects, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid - I'm a huge fan of the main actor," he says.
That dream could soon become a reality, as Vine hopes to cast Al Dhuhoori for the forthcoming feature-length film. Vine will act as executive producer while Stewart Sugg will direct.
"Ahmed has a vivid imagination and when the director explains a scene and the role, he understands and lives it," says Vine.
The story, set in the UAE, will focus on two boys whose lives are affected by a turtle.
"There is lots of interest in modern UAE, which has attracted quite a following - the mountains, desert and sea and now the big fascination is in this young Emirati actor who is unique and is in a primary role," says Vine.
As for Dubai's World Expo 2020 bid, he believes it will be one of the "century's major expos", potentially bringing about 40 million people to the UAE.
• Watch Ahmed Mohammed Ali Al Dhuhoori in The Turtle at www.youtube.com/user/ FilmsonUAE