LOS ANGELES, May 14, (RTRS): New York-trained Saudi actress-helmer Ahd Kamel is most recognized for her role as the teacher in “Wadjda.” As a director, she received attention with her 2013 short “Sanctity,” which premiered at the Berlinale. She’s shooting her first feature, in her home city of Jeddah.
Question: Tell us about your latest project.
Answer: The film is called “My Driver and I,” and it’s a coming-of-age story about a Saudi girl growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, and her friendship with her driver. I’m making this film because I grew up with a driver, who practically raised me, took me back and forth to school every single day, and when my parents passed away when I was a teenager, he was the only person who could rein me in. He really taught me a lot of the lessons I learned in life, but I only came to realize this about 10 years ago, after he passed away. It really hit me that I had taken this person for granted, and I also realized that I knew very little about his life. So essentially this film is an homage; it’s a way of saying thank you, and at the same time it’s about independence: He drives her in a car but at some point she has to take the wheel of her own life.
Q: It’s entirely Saudi funded. Did you look for international co-producers?
A: I looked at co-productions, but Saudi is a very unusual place because there are no co-production deals with any other country, so you run into many different problems, and I really wanted it to have the spirit of the people of my city. I also was fixated on trying to get money here because there are a lot of art patrons, and people who believe that this is essential for us to document a piece of culture that is almost non-existent now.
Q: With the high profile of Saudi films “Wadjda” and “Barakah Meets Barakah,” have things been easier or harder for you?
A: It’s hard to say. “Wadjda” was afforded certain things that we are not afforded now. Now the government is alert. But the government is actually supportive, even if they’re not very vocal about it. Behind the scenes I got permission from the censorship department. Not every film that’s coming out of Saudi is trying to make Saudi look bad. In fact, for me it’s more about looking like a human being. I’m just so sick and tired of this idea that you’re Saudi, therefore you’re a subject to be studied, especially as a woman.
Q: Do you feel a responsibility to changethe discourse about Saudi women?
A: It’s not a deliberate thing. I like to look at myself as a filmmaker, an artist who happens to be from Saudi. I never thought in my life that being a Saudi woman would be trendy! And now, it is super trendy for some reason. So if I can use it. … It’s kind of like the apocryphal Gandhi saying, “Be the change you want to see.” The fact that I exist means there already is a change.
Until recently, there were only a few animated Arab projects of which to speak, most of them pilots and videos on the small screen.
Enter Dubai-based banker-turned-producer Ayman Jamal, who in 2011 set up Barajoun Entertainment studios, the region’s first bona-fide animation studio in the Middle East. Jamal shepherded “Bilal,” a cinematic feat that marks the first CG-animated feature to come out of the region.
Inspired by the real-life story of Bilal Ibn Rabah, an African slave who became one of the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, (PBUH) “Bilal” features Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“Game of Thrones”) and child actor Andre Robinson (“Despicable Me 2”) as voice actors in the English-language version, which was completed first. The pic, which bowed at Doha’s Ajyal Youth Film Festival late last year, offers fast-paced action, plenty of battle sequences and lifelike characters sculpted in top-notch computer 3D, all of which involved hiring animators from 22 countries.
“We had to start from scratch to build a CG animation studio in Dubai Media City and recruit talent to start this whole industry in the region,” says Jamal. He is now looking to kickstart an Arab animation industry.
Co-directed by Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, “Bilal” cost $30 million,provided mostly by equity investors, plus some support from the Doha Film Institute.
Bilal Ibn Rabah was an orphaned slave from Ethiopia who, along with his sister, was forced into servitude for the nasty Lord Umayyah. He fought for his freedom as he underwent a political and religious awakening. After converting, he became one of the most illustrious names in Islamic history, though many Muslims today do not know his story. But Jamal is quick to play down the religious aspect.
“I just like the fact that this is the first slave that was set free,” he says. “Growing up in this region and reading stories, you don’t get attached or inspired by a story for a religious reason. I got inspired by Gandhi because there was a movie made about Gandhi. I could not care less about his religion.”
Still, it can’t be denied that “Bilal” is an Islamic icon. As Variety critic Jay Weissberg noted, it “will likely be a welcome counterbalance to the disturbingly negative depiction of Muslims in the West.”
Interestingly, Jamal deliberately positioned it toward a PG-13 rating, making it scary and violent “because we believe there is a larger market for animation other than just kids,” he says.
Shortly before Berlin’s European Film Market in February, Barajoun inked a deal with Andrea Iervolino and Monika Bacardi’s Toronto-based AIC Studios to jointly co-develop and produce five animated features budgeted in the $50 million range.
The first will be about Ziryab, the Iraqi musician, astronomer, and fashion designer who revolutionized medieval music during the Islamic era in Spain and remains influential to this day. American screenwriter Will Csaklos, who has worked as a script doctor on films such as “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille” and “The Princess and the Frog,” is putting the final touches on the screenplay.