Interview: Mohammed Saeed Harib

The Emirati director talks about his new film Rashib & Rajab

Interview: Mohammed Saeed Harib

Would you give the keys to your new Ferrari to someone who’s only ever ridden a bicycle? Of course you wouldn’t. You don’t own a Ferrari. But, someone else did. Sort of.

The UAE’s Oscar-winning production company Image Nation has shown remarkable trust in cinema novice Mohammed Saeed Harib. The Emirati animator, best known for kids’ TV cartoon FREEJ, has never shot a cinema film before. Nor worked with real film actors. Nor even seen a body-switch film.

Yet, here he is, sitting relaxed in front of us, having coolly ticked off his first feature film, the family-friendly comedy Rashib & Rajab. And, just like getting behind the wheel of a Ferrari, it’s been a pulsating ride of roaring exhilaration. Sort of.

“The first five days on set I was like [he clutches the arms of his chair, widening his eyes in fear].”

“People just stare at you. Sixty people asking ‘What do you think of the nails? What do you think of the wardrobe? How is the lighting? You said something two months ago that this starts on a wide and goes to medium…?’ Yes, it took me about five days but then I transitioned.”

Harib’s more at home in his beautiful animation studios in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue, the beating heart of the emirate’s independent arts scene. He and his small team work slowly on hit TV show FREEJ, a cartoon about four old Emirati women who adjust to life in the modern UAE. They finesse small details, they sit in nice meeting rooms sketching scenes out at their own pace, they all have the chance to breathe.

“Suddenly,” he laughs. “I’m getting up at 5am and joining the mad circus. A crazy tribe just waiting for instructions. It was a rush. But, we laughed so hard, it’s a comedy after all. And coming in to work on it every day was pure pleasure.”

The film, which is out across the UAE in time for Eid al-Fitr, tells the story of wealthy Emirati executive Rashid (Marwan Abdullah Saleh) and carefree Egyptian fast-food deliveryman Rajab (Shadi Alfons). The pair switch bodies after a freak accident. You know how the plot goes… The initial shock, the poor guy finally has the treasures he’s dreamed of, the rich bloke sees how lucky he’s actually had it all these years. They desperately search for a way to reverse it all, but not before they both learn some valuable life lessons. “Be careful what you wish for,” warns Harib.

Should he be? Should he himself be slightly careful of risking a flourishing reputation by switching roles from TV animation to live action movies?

“The main reason I signed up to this project is because I knew it was with Image Nation – otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered,” he adds. “I also had a fear of live-action camera set ups. I know a lot when it comes to animation, but what do I know about a camera?
“That’s why Image Nation wanted me, because I have a very raw talent when it comes to live action – especially as I’ve never done it before.”

It’s not the sort of credentials that fill a production company with confidence. But, then again, Image Nation is not a conventional production company. The Abu Dhabi-based group have a broad repertoire of films such as Keeping Up with the Joneses, Rings, Men in Black 3 and Contagion. They first tasted Oscar success with The Help in 2012 and most recently with their fascinating and fearless Free Solo, which landed the Best Documentary title at this year’s awards.

Now, it’s Harib’s turn to shine for them.

FREEJ has been labelled the Arab answer to The Simpsons. This year, it became the first-ever Arab export to air in animation-mad Japan. It’s a UAE success story following in the footsteps of Careem and Souq.com.

Not that his transition is likely to stay permanent. While the Avengers final chapter continues to smash records as the biggest film franchise in history, Harib is content with focusing on TV. He cites the conclusion of Game of Thrones, which is itself (like it or lump it) breaking records as the biggest TV show in history, as reflecting the shift towards greater respect for all directors.

“People would say: ‘So, now that you’ve done FREEJ, when are you going to do your feature film?’” he adds. “You know, people speak like films are an upgrade, but they’re not. They’re a media platform, just like TV.

“Films have something special, they’re sophisticated and people can walk round and say: ‘Oh, I’m a film director.’ But with Netflix, everything is flipping on its head. A director is a director, a show is a show, a film is a film.”

It’s a homegrown project filmed across Dubai, and, as a body-switch storyline, there is an inevitable message audiences will take home as the characters see the world through each other’s eyes.

Harib’s take on it? Note the message, but overall just enjoy it.

He insists: “People hammer me down on messages. I believe in creating entertainment for the sake of creating entertainment. We have very big issues with Arabic shows and content in general. People can be very idealistic and go: ‘What’s the message of this…?’ I say: ‘There is no message, did you laugh? Yes? Good, you are entertained. That is the purpose of it.’

“The last thing I want to do is step out of my world and my problems by going to the cinema, pay my money and then see someone else’s problems and feel bad.

“Watch the film, have a laugh, don’t take it seriously, take it for what it is and move on. As long as we entertain you, we’re happy.”
The same motto as Ferrari, then. Sort of.

Rashib & Rajab is in cinemas across the UAE from Eid al-Fitr.

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