x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Saudi producer meeting with cinematic success

Mohammed Al Turki, a Saudi, has met with success in Hollywood, producing films that have been recognised at the Sundance Film Festival and attracting top-notch acting talent such as Julianne Moore, John Cusack and Richard Gere.

Illustration: Mohammed Al Turki by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration: Mohammed Al Turki by Kagan McLeod for The National

When the Abu Dhabi Film Festival announced its star guest for next month's extravaganza, there was one man who must have permitted himself a quiet moment of satisfaction. Most of the excitement, naturally, surrounded the confirmation of Richard Gere's attendance in October, but it was the make-up of the travelling party supporting his new film Arbitrage which was just as interesting for Middle Eastern film fans. For alongside director Nicholas Jarecki and Gere's co-star Nate Parker will be the movie's Saudi executive producer, Mohammed Al Turki, who has already worked with Zac Efron, Julianne Moore and John Cusack. Staggeringly, he's only 26.

The early success Arbitrage is already enjoying proves that Al Turki has the happy knack of attaching himself to the right projects. Released in the United States last week, the legendary "Oscar buzz" has surrounded Gere's performance as an outwardly successful hedge fund chief executive planning his retirement who harbours dark and fraudulent secrets. Critic Roger Ebert described Gere's rendering of this flawed character as "the embodiment of a Wall Street lion, worth billions, charming, generous, honoured and a fraud right down to his bones". Rolling Stone, meanwhile, called his "rapt, watchful performance a thing of toxic beauty."

Al Turki, naturally, has been tweeting the choicest quotes. An executive producer's role is ambiguous at the best of times, but it's fair to say Al Turki was right to realise that Jarecki's script could strike at the very heart of our times.

Where did such intuition come from? Although he loved American films as a kid, watching them on video as they weren't released in Saudi, Al Turki certainly wasn't always destined for a career in the movies. True, he did study film at Regent's College in London, developing a taste for the Spanish movies of Pedro Almodovar. But as he has admitted himself in the past, Regent's College is a slightly odd university populated by the offspring of the wealthy - he compared the alumni, not entirely favourably, to something out of Gossip Girl or Clueless.

In March, he told The National that he hadn't necessarily expected that he'd embark on a film career. "I was working in a corporate communications department in an oil and gas company," he said. His father's oil and gas company, no less. "Next thing I know, my friend, who is British but originally Middle Eastern, asked me if I wanted to produce her film, which she wrote and directed."

That friend was Zeina Durra. Perhaps she had noticed Al Turki's consummate people skills - or perhaps she genuinely believed his youth wasn't an impediment to the role of executive producer. As Al Turki has said himself, it's a pretty demanding role: packaging a script, actors and story; finding investors and locations and making the film. And then, when it's made, if it's an independent film, it has to be marketed, advertised and sold.

But as part of a team, Al Turki managed to pull off his side of the bargain - not least because he would have been able to manage the cultural sensitivities of Durra's movie, The Imperialists Are Still Alive. In the film, a glamorous Jordanian/Palestinian visual artist in Manhattan is trying to track the whereabouts of a childhood friend last seen on a flight from the Middle East to Houston. She suspects CIA involvement but, as The New York Times noted, this is more about exploring the attitudes of Middle Eastern émigrés, and how they're "much more complex than the popular cliché of persecuted pariahs struggling to fit in."

With such an interesting subject matter, it was no real surprise The Imperialists Are Still Alive won Official Selection at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in 2010. Al Turki had been noticed … and not just by the film-making industry.

Al Turki feels the same urge towards philanthropism as his father Abdul Aziz, whose charities include The Saudi Cancer Foundation and The Saudi Organ Donation. It is also impressive that Al Turki is involved in Cinema For Peace, a fundraising charity which raised US$5 million (Dh18,365,000) in just two hours during the Golden Globes. But he has also become the subject of celeb-laden mini-features on Fashion TV - which filmed his birthday party at a ridiculously ritzy venue in The Hamptons. Al Turki, these days, gets snapped with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton at red carpet perfume launches for Lady Gaga's new scent. He has become the kind of person who, incorrectly or not, is now "linked" with Kim Kardashian, and saunters around Cannes with the likes of Sean Penn, dressed in immaculately on-trend labels.

Essentially, he's a wealthy twentysomething man having a lot of fun, and there's nothing particularly outlandish about that. If one wants to be generous, one could attribute such antics to a heightened sense of how film-making works. Being pictured in the midst of hijinks with Zac Efron in Monte Carlo makes a lot of sense if you can then encourage him to appear in your next independent movie. As he told The National, "a lot of the big actors want to do passion projects, want to send a message, want their voice to be heard, want to do something of importance." And sure enough, Zac Efron recently starred in another Al Turki production At Any Price, a tiny movie by the American director of Iranian descent, Ramin Bahrani, currently doing the festival circuit.

If this is Al Turki's unique selling proposition - to bring big names to movies with relatively small budgets - then he's proving remarkably adept at it. Dennis Quaid also stars in At Any Price, and although some reviewers at the Venice International Film Festival questioned whether Quaid actually knew whether his character is a "comic turn, a tragic hero, a regular guy, or a villain" (The Guardian), it's undeniable that the chance to see him play Zac Efron's dad is remarkably enticing. Al Turki, one senses, knows this.

Al Turki's other completed project, also on the festival circuit, is What Maisie Knew. A modernised version of Henry James's 1897 novel from the relatively unknown directing duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel would hardly seem to be box-office gold. But add Alexander Skarsgård, Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan into the mix and it's not entirely surprising Variety called it a "beautifully observed drama" at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. Soon afterwards, Millennium Entertainment bought the North American rights in a multimillion dollar deal.

And he certainly has a commercial brain on such young shoulders; Al Turki was once asked whether he hoped to work on an Arab-focused or set film and politely batted the question away by suggesting that he preferred to focus on commercially appealing movies, wherever the location.

In fact, Al Turki hasn't turned his back on the Middle East at all - a 2013 documentary he's working on explores the life of the banned Iranian dancer Afshin Ghaffarian. Meanwhile, his other two feature films in production are both fascinating and potential money-spinners: Adult World stars John Cusack and Julia Roberts' niece, Emma, in an indie-comedy based in an erotic bookstore, while Innocence is an adaptation of Jane Mendelsohn's teen vampire novel. Exciting times, then - although Al Turki hasn't had quite as much luck with his acting career: the one incredibly low-budget film he worked on, The Harrowing, was very strangely mothballed after an incident on set. Advertised as "3 Days Locked In A Mental Asylum. No script. 1 Terrifying Conclusion", it's perhaps the only misstep in Al Turki's nascent career.

When Richard Gere sweeps into Abu Dhabi next month, however, the focus will be firmly on Al Turki's successes. That there are already so many means it's not so surprising that the company he keeps is firmly on the A-list. After all, Hollywood loves a winner.