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.”