Poetry and animation might not sound like a recipe for box office success, but Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is aiming to bring the most famous work of the Lebanese poet to a new generation. Produced by and starring Salma Hayek, whose grandfather is Lebanese, the film is directed by Roger Allers, who was also in the chair for The Lion King. Liam Neeson lends his deep tones to the voice of the film’s protagonist, Mustafa, an imprisoned writer. Allers used nine different directors to animate the different chapters of spiritual poetry, and Emirati animator Mohammed Saeed Harib, creator of children’s animation show Freej, was among the nine. Time Out Abu Dhabi caught up with Harib on the night of the UAE premier.
How did you get involved with this unique project?
Four years ago the Doha Film Institute reached out to me and told me about this movie they were working on that would celebrate the work of one of the most famous Arabic poets and artists, Kahlil Gibran. That excited me, let alone the fact that I would be joining eight other much-acclaimed directors, many of whom are Academy Award-winners and that the whole troop would be helmed by none other than the legendary Roger Allers. I was the only one who had not even directed a [feature] film. They took a risk on me and I happily accepted the challenge.
Did you ever have any hesitations about the film?
I was proud, and then I was like, ‘Oh man!’ It’s the expectation, not just from them, but because I am representing the Arab world. I am the only Arab working on this piece that is celebrating an Arabic poet. The mandate for this film is to bring it alive for a new generation who might not have access to the book, and explain the beauty of its words.
The nine segment directors each worked on a separate chapter. How on Earth did that work?
They could have done it the easy way and had one director for the whole thing, but I salute them for doing it the hard way and making this a celebration of animation, as much as a celebration of Kahlil Gibran. It could have gone haywire, but it blends beautifully and that’s the role Roger Allers plays. He’s steering the ship and making sure the directors give him enough freedom to create the style. I chose the style called Aquarelle, which is a watercolour style. The whole piece took three and a half years and each frame was hand painted. All the directors did something different and it shows.
What was it like working with Roger Allers?
I consider him a mentor and I wanted to hear from him as much as I wanted to give to him. He had his comments and, like any team collaborating, there’s give and take. He actually gave me a lot of freedom.
Did you meet the rest of the directorial team?
Yes, I met Joan Gratz who won an Academy Award. Her section in the film was all done by her thumb. Nowadays, in the age of computer graphics, you’d think it was done by computer, but she lost her fingerprints doing that! Kahlil Gibran says ‘work is love made visible’, and that’s really love made visible.
What was the biggest challenge in your segment of the movie?
Technically it was something I hadn’t done before, so to do watercolour and make sure it didn’t spill over the frames was tough. I also wanted to pay homage to my own Arabic language and calligraphy. It’s such a beautiful language.
How involved was Salma Hayek?
Salma was amazing. She isn’t just an actress in the film, she is the powerhouse, the driving force. It reminded her of her grandfather, and she was the one who decided not to make this an easy film to create. She made it a very high-risk film because of all the different directors and styles, and she made it all come together. She’s an amazing soul.
You’re one of very few Emirati animators. What’s your view on the industry in the UAE?
I kick-started the animation industry here in 2006, when there were no commercial shows, let alone films. Now we’re looking at the first generation of animators moving in to do international movies such as Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. It’s the only format in Arabia that’s really up to the international standard. When you watch our cartoons you’re watching something that is of international quality.
How do you think the film will be received in the UAE?
Well, I don’t know, but I’m hoping it will be what we expect it to be. This film is not just for today. Hopefully it will do well, but more importantly,
I think it’s something for the ages.
Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is out now in cinemas across the UAE.