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.”


Saudi treasures at Louvre Abu Dhabi dazzle visitors

The exhibition helps to spread cultural knowledge among visitors about the glorious past of the region. (Photos/SPA)
Updated 17 December 2018
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Saudi treasures at Louvre Abu Dhabi dazzle visitors

  • The event reflects image of distant past from the heart of a country that preserves the spirit of ancient civilization

JEDDAH: The Roads of Arabia exhibition at the Louvre Museum Abu Dhabi has proved a big attraction for visitors of various nationalities. Subtitled Archaeological Treasures of Saudi Arabia, it carries important information about the history and civilizations of the Kingdom and the Arabian Peninsula.
Visitors expressed their pride that the exhibition confirms the Kingdom’s special place in the field of archaeology, in both the discovery of these treasures and the way they are preserved.
“The exhibition represents the ancient desert memory when trade was the lifeblood of the world. The Arab trade route through the region was one of the world’s most famous routes at the time,” said former Director General of the French National Museums Pierre-Francois Zemmour.
A similar exhibition titled Treasures of Saudi Arabia was held in the Paris Louvre in 2010 and achieved great popularity in Europe, according to Zemmour.
“The exhibition hosted by Louvre Abu Dhabi this year displays 466 artifacts from the Arabian peninsula, the land of the Hijaz and the Arabian Kingdom of Kindah in 200BC,” he added.
“This is a cultural and historical event of great importance which is attracting the attention of thousands of people around the world. It shows the authentic lifestyle of these ancient peoples, who were interested in riding, breeding falcons and hunting, as well as in the protection and organization of commercial convoys,” Zemmour said.
“What is distinctive about the exhibition is that the museum reflects the image of the distant past from the heart of a country that still preserves the spirit of ancient civilization and lives on the spirit of authenticity in a contemporary form.”
Simone Garaudy, a researcher at the National Institute of Archaeology and Heritage in Paris, said that Western and Arab archaeological missions have discovered thousands of important sites in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain over the past 10 years. “These discoveries are very important for the history of humanity. It is great to see that the UAE is particularly interested in national museums which represent the memory of the region and preserve the history of the Gulf region and the civilization of the Arabian Desert for the present and future generations,” said Garaudy.
Garaudy said that the Louvre Abu Dhabi displays the great value of the past using the latest techniques of presentation, preservation and storage. “This is very important because it makes it easy for millions of people around the world to follow the exhibitions, which present Arab history to the world,” she added.
Jean de Cornies, an artist and a member of the board of trustees of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, said that the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum has a collection of thousands of artifacts that reflect Arab lifestyle through the ages, collected from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and Oman.
“The Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi works with its counterparts in other Arab countries and around the world, making the Louvre Abu Dhabi a integrated historical memory that reflects a long history of the Arabs.”
Indian researcher Alimuddin said: “I can see sculptures from the Stone Age and artifacts that are tens of thousands of years old, and this makes us rethink many ideas and wonder how these pieces have been preserved, despite the difficult environmental conditions in the region.”
Kabra, a visitor, stressed the importance of viewing this great heritage, noting that she did not know much about the heritage of the Arabian Peninsula, and that holding such exhibitions helps to spread cultural knowledge among the people.