x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Going on a treasure hunt for an Emirati action film franchise

A fictional Bedouin hero will don a khandura and race to claim an ancient treasure in the name of the UAE by drawing upon tribal skills such as desert navigation and falconry.

Michael-Ryan Fletchall, the chief executive of Experience Media Studios, says they want to give Emiratis more roles in films.
Michael-Ryan Fletchall, the chief executive of Experience Media Studios, says they want to give Emiratis more roles in films.

ABU DHABI // Treasure hunter. Archaeologist. Adventurer. Emirati patriot? He may not brandish a bullwhip or wear a fedora, but the fictional Bedouin hero Abdulla Omar will don a khandura and race to claim an ancient treasure in the name of the UAE by drawing upon tribal skills such as desert navigation and falconry. The lion-hearted protagonist pitched by Abu Dhabi-based Experience Media Studios as the nation's answer to Indiana Jones will appear next year in Abdulla Omar and the Lost Sand City, the first action-adventure film to be produced locally.

By that time, the picture's producers hope, even moviegoers outside the country will know the character's name. "Abdulla Omar is a handsome Emirati. He's a Bedouin detective; a world-travelling 007 type," the studio's American chief executive, Michael-Ryan Fletchall, said yesterday. "He's a mix of all those, but his edge is he uses his specific background and deep knowledge from his culture." The film will be predominantly in English, though bits of dialogue will be spoken in Arabic.

If all goes well for the Hollywood-style popcorn flick, Mr Fletchall sees a franchise opportunity. "Anything we build, we want to see if we can leverage that into a multi-picture deal," he said. The first chapter in the possible series will take place in present-day Al Gharbia shortly after the discovery of a 3,000-year-old artefact proves the existence of "a legendary secret city" buried under the sands since the Bronze Age.

"There was a story about a Mesopotamian king who built this secret city where he put all this treasure and everybody thought it was just legend until they found this seal and analysed it in London," said Mr Fletchall. When international treasure thieves set out to claim the riches for themselves, Mr Fletchall said, the UAE Royal Family appoints Abdulla Omar to find it first. "To do that, he'll use his Bedouin instincts to get the upper hand."

In addition to stirring up economic activity in Al Gharbia and promoting the Emirates to international audiences, a large-budget film such as this indicates a shift in the kind of moviemaking in the UAE. "We want to start giving Emiratis role models and action heroes so they start to get excited about this industry and we can build organically a local film industry," Mr Fletchall said. David Shepheard, the director of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, described the project as part of an emerging trend of commercial features that do not necessarily need to be slow-paced, nuanced or explore serious themes of national identity.

Embracing characters or storylines with "fun, crossover" appeal, he said, was a good step for a maturing film industry. "The kind of film industry here is still in a young, early stage," he said. "You'll see a healthy mix of older, more art-house movies, but there's a new wave looking to break into the film industry as well looking at making movies with similar stories about location and our culture, but in a more popular way."

The film commission will support Mr Fletchall's film at a later development stage by securing filming permits from government ministries and connecting the film-makers with locally based freelance crew members. About 90 per cent of the film is expected to be shot in Al Gharbia. "A key part of our role is to just encourage more producers to come here and make movies, so we'll work with producers like Michael," Mr Shepheard said.

The main goal for Experience Media is to tell stories to as broad an audience as possible while never losing sight of the UAE element. The studio is also developing a biopic trilogy chronicling the life of Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the nation, with the first part set to premiere on National Day 2011. All the studio's projects will have "at least a regional distribution", Mr Fletchall added.

"Yes, [The Lost Sand City] is like Indiana Jones and The Mummy a fun action-adventure type but what we're going to do with this movie is still the story of an Emirati person and put them in the light that we'd like the international audiences to see Emiratis in," Mr Fletchall said. Whether or not the film portrays Bedouin lifestyles with painstaking authenticity is besides the point, said Saoud al Mulla, a film historian and the chair of Applied Media Studies at Abu Dhabi Men's College.

"I doubt it will be representational of our culture because in our culture there is no such thing as an action hero really," he said. "But it's a good move. It's cool. It's a smart move." Mr al Mulla characterised the majority of the UAE's current offerings as "art films" typically set in the 1960s or 70s about traditional life. "Some have a slow rhythm and some are challenging films which might target a certain audience," Mr al Mulla said. "Commercial films are exactly what we need since we've already done all the artistic, traditional films about our history."

Still, Faizan Rashid, a Dubai-based film critic and the editor of the review website , had reservations about the upcoming epic, fearing that it could become another forgotten cinema spectacle. Mr Rashid argued that pursuing a Hollywood style would diverge from what should be a mission to discover a uniquely Emirati film-making voice. "I wouldn't want it to be an Indiana Jones wannabe," he said. "An Emirati filmmaker with Emirati actors can make a nice, humble desert film. There's nothing wrong with doing that and making a film about Emirati problems."

As for whether the titular role will go to a local actor, Mr Fletchall said: "You can easily say if the right person with talent comes along Emirati or no we will have that person." mkwong@thenational.ae