We visit the set of the major movie being filmed in Doha
Mohammed Al Ibrahim’s big break involved pigeons. ‘I had a small role in the film, myself and another Qatari, we were pigeon guards! Basically for homing pigeons. I did have a line of scripted dialogue, and also some improv. I had to say, “The pigeons are dead or flew away.”’
Al Ibrahim laughs when he recalls the experience, and looks forward to seeing himself on the big screen when Black Gold is released towards the end of the year. ‘It was really nice, because in the script we were just supposed to be in one scene,’ he recalls, ‘and Jean-Jacques [Annaud, director] kept on giving us more, so we ended up being in three. I actually get to have screen time with a big name actor. I’m not going to say who it is, but I have about five, six seconds with him – so I know for sure it’s not going to end up on the cutting room floor.’
Al Ibrahim has come a long way since shooting his first one-minute movie as part of the educational programmes put on by what would eventually become the Doha Film Institute (DFI). Now he is involved in Black Gold, the first big budget production to be shot partially in Qatar, involving hundreds of extras, crewmembers, and suspiciously creepy rubber dead camels. The film stars Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto, and tells the story of two Arab princes when oil was first being discovered in the region.
The original script was a Hollywood albatross, delayed, postponed and backburnered repeatedly until finally it came together in the dunes of Qatar and Tunisia. Al Ibrahim, along with Tusilya Muthukumar and Mohanned Al Melhem, were three local residents who worked as production assistants. ‘This was a good start,’ says Muthukumar. ‘The first few days, I was a bit frustrated, as there isn’t always stuff to do, there is a lot of waiting around, and sometimes all you do is make coffee. But I chatted to people on set about what they do, observed Jean-Jacques, and it was a great learning experience for me.’
She describes the time on set as challenging. And when we ask her to elaborate, we have to agree. ‘I lived with the dead camels,’ she announces. ‘The tent where I managed the coffee table is where the animatronic people worked, where they put their workshop. So they had these pretend dead camels and humans everywhere to show the aftermath of a battle scene. I got to put on their costumes, and they were actually quite heavy. You also had to make sure the clothes match what the actor was wearing too.’
For Scandar Copti, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and head of the DFI educational programming, it is the opportunity the film gave to Qatar’s aspiring movie hopefuls that was important. ‘My first job on a film was mainly staying with the actors in the make-up room, and walking them onto the set when they were needed. It was a film called The Syrian Bride. You ask questions, you learn things, and three months later I was editing behind the scenes of the same film. I convinced the director to let me edit, and he did. With Black Gold we have an opportunity, for people here who want to be filmmakers, and no matter what job you end up doing, subconsciously you will direct your film based on what you saw, without knowing it. Or based on what you hated in what you saw! You’ll see a lot of things that you thought were mistakes, and you will not make them in your film.’
Having that opportunity means that aspiring filmmakers can get experience and learn their craft inside Qatar. Black Gold is the largest production to date, but many say it won’t be the last. ‘The scenery is beautiful,’ says Copti. ‘If you need deserts, dunes and beautiful, clean water, it’s the perfect place. I know already of two projects that might be shot here, but I cannot tell you which ones.’
For Al Ibrahim, the idea of more productions coming to Qatar is welcome news. ‘Qatar is competing right now, that’s how I see it,’ he says. ‘But it takes time, nothing is going to happen overnight. The UAE had the advantage that they’ve had festivals for a little bit longer than we have, they have a bigger kind of culture as well. But we’re getting there. I think in the next few years we’re going to have more filmmakers that have come out with feature films.’
The type of films that could be shot in Qatar range from Hollywood blockbusters and independent films to genre movies. But Copti says the opportunity for Qatar goes beyond becoming just another interchangeable backdrop – there’s the chance to make films about the Arab world, made by Arabs, using Arab money. ‘I’m not really a big fan of Hollywood films,’ he says. ‘But Black Gold is a little bit different. It’s a European-Arab coproduction, and most of the money is from this region.’
Copti believes that Qatar in particular has some discerning film buffs living here, and it’s important to pique their interests. ‘Basically I discovered that the film culture always existed here. And people watch films other than what they have in the cinema, they source other films that are out there and they know about film. The culture exists. Now we’re just providing the platform for people who want to take action and become active. Watching film is good, but it’s passive, and to become active and create their own films, we’re providing this platform.’
And it’s starting with getting people coffee. ‘It was a lot of great experience in filmmaking. And when we finished, I knew I would never look at movies the same way again,’ says Al Melhem. ‘Because when you see movies on TV, it’s not just 90 minutes, it’s all that went into it.’ Black Gold is out in cinemas this November.
Films of Arabia
How will Black Gold rank against these other films shot in the region?
City of Life (2009) Shot in: Dubai, UAE The stories of a young Arab male, a taxi driver who looks like a Bollywood star and a ballet dancer turned flight attendant help to showcase the city’s multi-cultural diversity.
Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade (1989) Shot in: Petra, Jordan The Treasury in this old Jordanian city was an important set-piece for the finale of the third Indiana Jones adventure. Sadly, you can’t actually go inside like Indy and his dad did, nor does it house the Holy Grail.
The Kingdom (2007) Shot in: Abu Dhabi, UAE Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner flew into Abu Dhabi, but pretended they were actually soldiers in Saudi instead. And when the average reviews came out they probably wished they were in another film as well.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) Shot in: Dubai, UAE Tom Cruise came to the Middle East to shoot the fourth instalment in his Mission: Impossible saga, running through souks and abseiling down the side of the Burj Khalifa. The film is out in December.
Syriana (2005) Shot in: Dubai, UAE The geopolitical thriller starring George Clooney and Matt Damon was part-shot in the UAE city. George looks disheveled and slightly overweight – even he is not oblivious to the famed GCC stone.