x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Screen presence

ImageNation is to make six homegrown feature films. The National talks to some of the filmmakers about their plans.

ImageNation, the film production arm of the Abu Dhabi Media Company, is still a young organisation but it has already made its presence felt in the movie world. Fair Game, a retelling of the Valerie Plame affair starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, was a contender for the Palme d'Or at Cannes two weeks ago. It's only the latest Abu Dhabi production to see theatres. Other notable achievements include the Bollywood blockbuster My Name is Khan and Shorts, Robert Rodiguez's action adventure for children. The company is also fostering film in the Emirates with a slate of six new films.

Nawaf al Janahi will direct the first of ImageNation's Emirati features. The filmmaker, who previously directed the highly regarded philosophical thriller The Circle, has signed up to make Sea Shadow, a coming-of-age story set in the Emirates. It will be the first of ImageNation's homegrown titles to go into production, followed by films provisionally titled Million's Poet, Djinn, Alaska, Monsoon and Alis and Aishas.

"We were working on the film in 2009, as a feature film project, and the original plan was to produce it independently," says al Janahi. "Then ImageNation approached us. They were very interested in the concept and idea that we were working on. And with them having these beautiful strategies to develop these Emirati feature films, we started talking and things went on from that point." Sea Shadow tells the story of two 16-year-old boys, Mansour and Kaltham, who go on a journey of self-discovery after their home life is disrupted. "We were mainly concerned about this character who was growing up," says al Janahi, "and trying to discover his emotions and first loves among other elements like family relationships and the culture surrounding the family."

I suggest that the film sounds lighter in tone than his previous feature, but al Janahi disagrees. "It has its own dark side," he says. "I don't want to spoil it for the audience." The screenwriter on the project is the novelist and TV writer Mohammed Hassan Ahmed. He and al Janahi started developing the film as a short two years ago, but came to feel the idea had enough mileage in it for a feature. That's when ImageNation got involved. "We started working on the scenario in a more professional way, and over the next couple of months we'll start shooting the movie," says Ahmed. "The main objective of this movie is to have our presence at international festivals."

If Sea Shadow has the makings of a festival hit or prestige picture, a couple of the other films on the slate suggest more obvious commercial potential. Djinn, for example, is a horror written by the American screenwriter David Tully, whose previous credits include the Anglo-German horror co-production Hepzibah. "The basic pitch is that a young couple moves into a luxury new high-rise in Al Hamra," he says. "It's an abandoned fishing village above Dubai that is filled with tonnes of legends about djinns - and they actually are building these two luxury high-rises up there, which is what gave me the idea for it." The couple, who are Emiratis, find their new neighbourhood almost deserted. The few neighbours they have don't inspire confidence, either. Then the wife disappears. "From there," says Tully, "things get more complicated and bizarre." The film is "at its root, a haunted house story", says the writer, who has lived in Dubai for the past year.

No director is attached to the project so far, but as Tully says, "I know that they want to do as much Emirati talent as possible." He adds: "I have experience of writing in the genre of horror that is very western, but we have this whole new culture right here, and those two things are going to make something entirely new," he says. "That's what I think is so fascinating - the djinn as a cultural tradition. That's something you don't see in the West." The screenwriter Ahmed Arshi seems to have found another novel movie formula by combining elements from East and West. His film, currently titled Alaska, is set to be the first Emirati frat comedy.

The plot concerns two Emirati students studying in the US who have to undertake a hazing (initiation) ritual in order to join a college fraternity. "They have to go and make a picture under the billboard of Welcome to Alaska so they can join the club," says Arshi. "So they go on an adventure, crossing up Canada all the way to Alaska." The writer promises "some comedy" and "clashes of cultures" with both Americans and Canadians. I ask if the story has any autobiographical dimension. "Yes," he says very seriously. "It has to. In order to make it super-funny."