x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sheikh Zayed's life comes to big screen

Abu Dhabi-based Experience Media Studios is to produce a biopic about the founding President of the UAE.

Sheikh Zayed inspects work on the Corniche in Abu Dhabi in 1977.
Sheikh Zayed inspects work on the Corniche in Abu Dhabi in 1977.

ABU DHABI // Sheikh Zayed led an epic life, and now he will have a film to match. Abu Dhabi-based Experience Media Studios is to produce a biopic about the founding President of the UAE. It will be released on National Day, December 2, in 2011. It will be the first full-length film about the leader to be made for the cinema and will be released worldwide.

"This story is not just important for the UAE, it's important for the world," said Michael-Ryan Fletchall, the studio's chief executive. "People are looking for inspiration. People are looking for leaders who lead beyond their time. He's a person that was such a great force in the region, and it is important to let that legacy live on." Mr Fletchall said the film would have a similar feel to Lion of the Desert, a historical action movie based on the Libyan tribal leader Omar Mukhtar, or to Gandhi.

While the production will strive for historical accuracy, Mr Fletchall pointed out that it would be a feature film, not a documentary. "This is a historic situation we're in," said Mr Fletchall, an American. "It is as if I had a chance to interview the founder of our country, George Washington. "There are stories that over time slowly go away. We feel it is a great opportunity because there are so many people who knew him [Sheikh Zayed] personally and who can give us in-depth information."

The film will feature the growth of the UAE over 50 years. Dr Hasan al Nabdah, a professor of history at UAE University, said: "[The film] is a good idea. He was a great leader who managed to guide the sheikhs to the right direction during a time of many changes. He put his prints on the history of the region, the whole Middle East. "Things are changing all over the world and children are more concerned with the internet and movies, and not many of them read books. It is a great way for children to learn about the founder of the nation."

Mr Fletchall said: "We wanted to weave in some elements of what is happening in the rest of the world, so we can see the contrasts between what took place in the world and what was happening in the UAE at the time. "The country was just forming. There was a pearl trade that was just beginning to kick in, and the new oil money. It took somebody with real vision to look past the wealth and see something that could be for the people, instead of holding on to it for themselves."

The studio is planning a trilogy. The first film will be about Sheikh Zayed from the 1960s to the present, the second will concentrate on his early years and the third will be about his grandfather, Sheikh Zayed the First, who ruled Abu Dhabi for 54 years. "First we learn about the country and how it fits into the world," said Mr Fletchall. "Then we want to take it down to be more about the man, and what got him to this stage to form the country and build stability in the region. The third one is more historically about the region."

There is no planned release date for the two final films, and their production will depend on how well the first film is received internationally. The production company will build historical sets in the desert, and will also use special effects to transport cinema-goers back to the Abu Dhabi of the 1960s. "We are going to use some of our Hollywood movie magic to move the current and past together," Mr Fletchall said, without revealing how much the production is likely to cost.

Deciding who will play Sheikh Zayed is an even more daunting task. "It is going to be a really tough casting situation, and we're fully aware of that," said Mr Fletchall. "The person to play the part would have to live up, in their personal lives, to the standard that Sheikh Zayed set. It's a challenge to find someone who could live up to such high esteem." Filming is expected to start next May. Experience Media Studios was started in January 2009 and is based in Abu Dhabi's Media Zone. Most local production companies focus on corporate and music videos and advertising. Few are able to make a full-length feature film or television show.

"There are a lot of production companies that are local but don't have the production side, which is a totally different side of television and film making. We're trying to bring the Hollywood golden age to Abu Dhabi," said Mr Fletchall. Many government organisations involved in the film had told the company the younger generations did not know their country's history, he added. "We wanted to create something so that, 50 years from now, the story will still be told. We want it for the younger audience and also for people across the world."