BAFTA-winning ‘Captain Phillips’ actor to star in UAE film

The production follows the breakout success of Kumar’s 2016 short film “Security,” a directional debut which screened at festivals on four continents.
Updated 28 February 2018
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BAFTA-winning ‘Captain Phillips’ actor to star in UAE film

DUBAI: How do you get an Oscar-nominated Hollywood star to act in your on-a-shoestring, independent GCC-produced movie? Quite simple – just ask.

In April, cameras will roll on set in the UAE filming “Beneath a Sea of Lights,” and leading the cast is Barkhad Abdi, a face familiar to millions for his turn alongside Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” a BAFTA-winning performance which also earned nominations from the Academy Awards and Golden Globes.

First-time feature director Neel Kumar remembers tracking down the actor’s agent on website IMDB, and fancifully sending over a screenplay. “It was a complete shot in the dark,” he recalls. Within a week there was a reply in his inbox: Abdi was on board. “He said he had never read a story like this before,” adds Kumar.

Also newly signed for the project is Jim Sarbh, an overnight Bollywood sensation who last year won a string of awards – and picked up a Filmfare nomination for Best Supporting Actor – with his breakout role in tense thriller “Neerja.”

Such a cast is unmistakably a big deal for a regional film production, and a major vote of confidence in Middle Eastern moviemaking, so often overlooked by the Hollywood establishment. On March 4, Lebanon competes for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the first time, with Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult.” No GCC country has ever been nominated for the award – shockingly, and neither has traditional regional cinema powerhouse Egypt.

Kumar ranks among an emerging generation of GCC-based filmmakers who might one day change that. The Dubai-raised director already has plans to submit “Beneath a Sea of Lights” for consideration at the world’s biggest festivals, including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Sundance.

“We’re working with people of a caliber that deserve to be at those festivals, and I think we’re going to get performances which deserve to be there,” adds the 32-year-old filmmaker, who also serves as the project’s co-producer. “So, the very least we can do, as thanks, is aim for that level.”

The production follows the breakout success of Kumar’s 2016 short film “Security,” a directional debut which screened at festivals on four continents, picking up a string of award nominations – including Best Foreign Short from the Canada Shorts Film Festival – as well as a Special Festival Mention honor at the Mumbai Shorts International Film Festival.

“Security” tells the story of two security guards – one Indian, the other Pakistani – sharing lonesome sentry duties at a remote desert compound. Days go by with nothing but the desert winds, and their prejudices, for company. The concept was inspired by long nights that the insomniac Kumar spent drinking tea with the security guards at his own compound, after first buying them a kettle.

“Everyone has an opinion about Dubai – people expected to see skyscrapers and concrete, and they saw sand,” says Kumar, a Canadian citizen of Indian heritage. “There’s no other place this story could be told. Here you have Indians and Pakistanis together all the time – you go back to India and people’s [prejudiced] perception is just what the media tells them.”

“Beneath a Sea of Lights” will continue that look into the world of migrant workers embarking on a new life in the Gulf. Originally, the plan had again been to shoot in Hindi – a language Kumar, raised between the UAE, Canada, and Sri Lanka, speaks “very, very poorly” – with an Indian name actor playing the lead. But Bollywood proved too pricey for the film’s $650,000 budget. “There are Bollywood stereotypes for a reason,” laughs Kumar. “The first question we got was normally ‘how many songs are there?’”

Disenfranchised, Kumar suddenly hit upon an idea – switching the protagonist to an English-speaking African migrant. And he had just the actor in mind for the role. “I said ‘if money were no object, who would be the perfect actor?’,” he remembers, “and the first name we came up with was Barkhad’s.”

Abdi will play Caweys, a former Somalian farmer recently arrived in Dubai to work as a billboard repairman, who becomes overwhelmed by his new home and life. The role mirrors, to a certain extent, Abdi’s sudden overnight fame: The Somali-American actor was plucked out from hundreds of amateur actors for the part of pirate leader Abduwali Muse in Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” and following the movie’s 2013 release, his life would never be the same again.

“The reason we cast Abdi was not ‘Captain Phillips’ – it was the interviews he gave afterwards on shows like Conan,” adds Kumar. “He just seemed like a fish out of water – but very happy to be there – which is exactly how I see this character just arrived in Dubai – that awed look just spoke to me.”

Penned by Kumar and co-writer Marina Litvinova, the 113-page screenplay develops as Caweys becomes increasingly fixated by the glamorous products his billboards promote and sets out to experience the firsthand reality of each image he works on: Taking a perfume sampler from the mall, trying an exotic ice cream flavor. “We’re trained to filter what adverts are for us, and which are not,” adds Kumar. “I’m not going to even look at the Ferrari advert.” Caweys lacks a filter, but instead possesses a dangerous curiosity.

The idea was sparked by Kumar’s early experience working as a copywriter in an advertising agency. When tasked with selling a luxury car he knew he could never afford, Kumar was still moved to visit the showroom for a closer look. The film pushes the concept further as Caweys descends a “slippery slope,” this urban drama develops the criminal elements of a heist movie.

“I don’t always agree with everything he does,” adds Kumar, who shares story credits with co-producer Umran Shaikh. “But every step of the way we asked ourselves: Do we understand why he’s doing this? The answer was always, yes.”

The project is a coproduction between Dubai’s Akela Films and Dejavu, in association with Alkatraz Media Services & Action Filmz. Kumar founded Akela eight years ago after walking away from a lucrative job at advertising behemoths Saatchi & Saatchi, and today balances commercial work alongside personal projects.

“As jobs go, advertising is probably the most fun you can have – but it’s still a job,” he adds. “I wanted to tell stories. The urge was always in me to make a movie – I just didn’t know it would take this long.”


British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

Updated 48 min 28 sec ago
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British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

  • Exhibition on King Ashurbanipal reveals treasures from the 7th-century kingdom that stretched across northern Iraq and eastern Mediterranean.
  • Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.”

LONDON: When Daesh ransacked Mosul Museum in February 2015, the world watched in horror as cultural treasures were pushed from plinths and relics from ancient civilizations smashed to the floor. 

Priceless pieces of Iraq’s history were lost, taking thousands of years of heritage with them while the militant group tried to wipe out pre-Islamic past and destroy all memory of the ancient civilizations Iraq is built on.

Rescuing the artefacts that escaped the group’s savagery and restoring Iraq’s archaeological ancestry has become part of the healing process as the country emerges from the trauma of Daesh rule and pieces its identity back together following a decade of turmoil. 

Programs to train Iraq’s archaeologists in emergency heritage management are being supported by overseas institutions, including the British Museum in London, where a new exhibition will delve into an era when Iraq was at the center of a great Assyrian empire. 

Priceless treasures from the archaeological archives of ancient Assyria will go on display at the museum in November for the first major exhibition on the kingdom’s last great ruler, King Ashurbanipal. 

Described as the most powerful person on earth during his reign in the 7th-century BC, Ashurbanipal ruled with an iron fist from his seat in Nineveh, now northern Iraq. 

He presided over a vast territory that stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the summits of western Iraq and was known, according to the exhibition, as a “Warrior. Scholar. Empire-builder. King-slayer. Lion-hunter. Librarian.”

A map showing the extent of the Assyrian Empire (in pink). (Courtesy Paul Goodhead)

His feats on the battlefield, which included conquering Egypt and crushing the state of Elam, established his military might but the Assyrian king also cultivated an intellectual prestige, amassing the largest library in existence to showcase his scholarship.

For Ashurbanipal, the ruthless ruler, harnessing the power of learning to build his status as “King of the World, King of Assyria,” was equally important in cowing his enemies.

Among the notable pieces in his extraordinary collection, which predated the famous Library of Alexandria, was the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia considered the earliest surviving work of great literature.

About 30,000 of these texts are in the hands of the British Museum, where they tell the story of life at Ashurbanipal’s famously extravagant court in ancient cuneiform script, hammered out on clay tablets. 

These are among the 200 rarely-seen objects due to be displayed at the museum, which has brought together pieces from across the world, from the History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan to the Musée du Louvre in Paris to supplement its existing collection of artefacts from the glory days of ancient Assyria. 

Huge stone statues, delicately-carved reliefs, rare wall paintings and elaborate armory give a sense of the opulence of Ashurbanipal’s palace, which stood as a symbol of the vast wealth and influence he wielded, flanked by expansive gardens where an elaborate canal network reached 50 kilometers into the mountains.

Recent speculation has suggested that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — were in fact those at Nineveh.

Some of the the artefacts have been brought up from a decommissioned basement gallery at the British Museum, where few have had the opportunity to lay eyes on them for 20 years. 

Brought together for the first time, they capture the scale and splendor of the era before Ashurbanipal’s empire fell to the Babylonians and recalls an era when the influence of Assyrian monarchs reached across the world. 

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.” 

Many of the items on display originate from archaeological sites in Iraq, including Nineveh and Nimrud, cities recently ravaged by Daesh when the group stormed the ancient sites armed with sledgehammers and drills. 

Gareth Brereton, exhibition curator, said: “As present-day Iraq looks to recover the history of damaged sites at Nineveh and Nimrud, this exhibition allows us to appreciate and relive the great achievements of an ancient world and celebrate its legacy.”