Qatari student filmmaker Mohammed Al Ibrahim’s big break in forthcoming Hollywood movie Black Gold involved pigeons. ‘I had a small role in the film. Myself and another Qatari, we were pigeon guards. Basically for homing pigeons. 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. He’s come a long way since shooting his first one-minute movie as part of an educational programme put on by what would eventually become the Doha Film Institute (DFI). Now he’s involved in Black Gold, the first big-budget production to be shot partially in Qatar, involving hundreds of extras, crew members, and creepy dead rubber camels. The film stars Antonio Banderas (left) and Freida Pinto, and tells the story of two Arab princes during the era when oil was first being discovered in the region.
The original script was a Hollywood albatross, delayed repeatedly until it finally came together in the dunes of Qatar and Tunisia. Al Ibrahim, along with fellow Qatari residents Tusilya Muthukumar and Mohanned Al Melhem, were drafted in 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. But I chatted to people on set and observed [director] Jean-Jacques Annaud, and it was a great learning experience for me.’
Muthukumar describes the time on set as challenging. ‘I lived with the dead camels,’ she announces. ‘The tent where I managed the coffee table is where the animatronics 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.’
For Scandar Copti, Oscar-nominated filmmaker and head of the DFI educational programming, the main draw of the film is the opportunity it has given to Qatar’s aspiring movie hopefuls. Black Gold is the largest production filmed in Qatar to date, but many say it won’t be the last. ‘Qatar is competing right now – that’s how I see it,’ Al Ibrahim says. ‘But it takes time.’ Copti says the opportunity for the region goes beyond becoming 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 different. It’s a European/Arab co-production, and most of the money is from this region. The culture exists. Now we’re providing the platform for people who want to take action.’
And that action starts with getting people coffee. ‘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 scheduled to hit UAE cinemas in November.
Arabia on the big screen
How will Black Gold compare to these films shot in the region?
The geopolitical thriller starring George Clooney and Matt Damon was part-shot in Dubai. George looks disheveled and slightly overweight – even he is not oblivious to the famed ‘Dubai stone’.
City of Life (2009)
The stories of three individuals – a young Arab male, a taxi driver who looks like a Bollywood star, and a ballet dancer-turned-flight attendant – intertwine and collide to showcase Dubai’s multicultural diversity.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011)
Tom Cruise came to the UAE 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.