22 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Friday meets Emirati film-maker Majid Al Ansari

Emirati film-maker Majid Al Ansari has hit the critical and commercial jackpot with Zinzana, a taut thriller that has come to symbolise a new phase in regional cinema, says Tania Bhattacharya

By Tania Bhattacharya
22 Apr 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • Majid says actors Ali Suliman and Saleh Bakri brought great energy to the film with their fantastic performances.

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On a hot dry day in the middle of nowhere, a charming policeman walks into a police station and begins a polite conversation with the officer in charge – a rotund, unsuspecting man who just wants to sleep. In the background a lone prisoner, tall and brooding, looks on with scarce interest, lost in his thoughts, a palpable tinge of self-pity etched on his face. It’s like any other day, but suddenly the policeman, without warning (spoiler alert!), picks up a paper knife lying on the table and stabs the officer in charge with remarkable deftness, severing his carotid artery.

Zinzana (prison cell), Emirati film-maker Majid Al Ansari’s debut feature, has the power to have the viewers hooked from the word go. The 96-minute-long Arabic film, which is a taut psychological thriller, is enjoyably intense. A dysfunctional psychopath who has a disarming smile one moment and a gruesome smirk the next, who can flirt with a subordinate and immediately after dance the tango in an almost hypnotic trance by himself, can leave viewers high on adrenaline.

Majid smiles as I mention this during our interview. I wonder at the human mind, so dark and deep. Is that disturbing? I ask.

‘Not at all,’ laughs the director. ‘The genre is fun in its own way – it allows you to experiment in so many ways – and the violence is artistically shot. We all know it’s not realistic. I really believe in keeping things positive, and we all went on set happy because we love making movies!’

At 28, Majid is the toast of the nation. Since hitting the festival circuit – Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas; BFI London Film Festival; DIFF – and its theatrical release in December – Zinzana has met with resounding critical success and is considered one of Emirati cinema’s biggest hits. Boosted by tremendous support from Image Nation, the producing company, his cast and crew, and Vox, which began showing its trailers before every 13+ film for months, Zinzana created history as the first genre movie of its kind to be made here. Across the world, it stunned audiences, who have come to expect only powerful social commentaries and art house cinema from the Arab world.

‘Hollywood [and western content] has a major role to play in stereotyping the region,’ says Majid. ‘Add to that the low commercial expectations from Arab cinema, and you know why enough such movies in Arabic aren’t being made.

‘Nothing happens overnight, and we need to balance out quality and quantity. The region is hungry for good-quality Arabic content, and we should work towards catering to that hunger.’

Zinzana stars Palestinian powerhouses Ali Suliman and Saleh Bakri, who truly bring the script alive with their performances. Ali, in particular, is absolutely terrific as the homicidal maniac, whose mad machinations meld into Saleh’s sense of despair like a fraught composition you can’t ignore.

‘I was terrified of working with them,’ says Majid. ‘I mean, the only other film I directed before this was a short one [The Intruder, 2011] and my production designer was the actor! And here I was, working with real actors.

‘Going into it, I knew the film wouldn’t work if the actors didn’t believe in it. But they were so open to it, and excited; they just brought great energy to the project. Ali, especially, really jumped into it. He gets it – this madness for movies – and we’re really great friends now.’

The praise and adulation that Majid has received for Zinzana – one film critic described him as the Tarantino of the Middle East – has only added a healthy glow to his already buzzing personality. His childlike exuberance when he talks about cinema is endearing, and he comes across as an overjoyed movie buff, talking film like he only discovered it yesterday.

'My mum is from Kuwait, and I used to travel there twice a year,’ he says. ‘All my uncles studied abroad and they loved movies. They would come home with tonnes of VHS tapes and we’d watch movies together all the time.’

Die Hard topped the list of favourites: ‘One time, we watched it eight times in a week.’ And at eight years old, he watched The Exorcist. ‘It was crazy,’ he laughs. ‘Here I am, scared out of my mind, and my uncle pauses at every scene to explain what’s happening!’

Majid’s passion and movie collection grew from there. At 11, he remembers returning from Kuwait with about a 100 tapes. ‘I was truly in love with cinema,’ he says.

Seeing Zinzana, it’s impossible to imagine that Majid almost gave up the idea of film-making. ‘I was so shocked when I went on my first set [around seven or eight years ago],’ he says. ‘It was a four-day shoot for a commercial, and I was a trainee assistant for the gaffers. The scale of equipment and crew, the time spent in getting each shot and angle right, the money that went into it all… I just left after a couple of days. I was so intimidated, I nearly decided to give up.’

What followed was a period of introspection.

A fan of anime, Majid had decided at the age of 16 – while watching the popular series Bleach – to study film, instead of pursuing a regular nine-to-five career. His career counsellor at the American International School was very encouraging, and he wanted to apply to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. ‘I was too afraid of sending my application to them though, too intimidated,’ he says. So, Majid ended up studying music at California State University, Long Beach.

Around the time he graduated, there was a massive investment drive in the UAE in support of the arts, including cinema. The New York Film Academy had just opened shop in Abu Dhabi, and he got a scholarship from the government to attend its second semester. ‘I didn’t like it much though, I didn’t enjoy it,’ he says, and began to intern at various equipment houses, film production offices and the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC). That’s how he landed on set, and lost his nerve.

‘Until that point, all I thought a director is supposed to do is point the camera and shoot,’ laughs Majid. ‘I just knew bits and pieces of the film-making process.’

As a parting shot, he decided to attend the Maisha Film Lab in Uganda, a non-profit training initiative for emerging East African film-makers and mentorship programme established by Indian director Mira Nair of Monsoon Wedding fame. He was one of three UAE residents chosen to go by ADFC for a month.

It was an intense period of training, Majid reminisces, being mentored by Mexican director Patricia Riggen, who made The 33 with Antonio Banderas. ‘She told me, “Film-making isn’t about the camera; it’s about the story. Who cares about the camera?” I learned that it was important to have a good script, and a vision regarding it. That experience quelled my apprehensions about the technical aspects of making films.’

Majid returned to the UAE, filled with a renewed need to understand storytelling. ‘I spent a huge chunk of money on eBay, binge-buying movies of film-makers from around the world,’ says Majid. ‘I’d find a director, and just order every movie he or she had made.’

That his form and style of direction as well as cinematic technique are deeply influenced by his exposure to diverse film-makers is apparent in Zinzana, and this was a time when he discovered the transcendent language and the beauty of cinema. ‘Asian cinema was, and still is, my greatest love,’ he says. ‘I watched everything, from Akira Kurosawa to Park Chan-Wook, Wong Kar Wai and Joon Ho Bong. I was amazed by their work – how they aren’t afraid to experiment, aren’t afraid to fail. Those experiences of punk rock Japan are my absolute favourite.’

He also grew to love Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick’s works.

It was a huge leap indeed, from Die Hard to Wong Kar Wai and his film In the Mood For Love.

And Majid realised what he loves most about movies. ‘The escape,’ he says emphatically. ‘I love that about cinema. There’s no feeling like it. The best part about watching a really good film is waking up to reality once it’s over. Zinzana is an escapist film, very character driven.’

Eventually, Majid joined Image Nation Abu Dhabi – one of the UAE’s most prominent production companies whose international partners include Hyde Park Entertainment and Warner Bros – as an intern and went on to work on several projects such as Sea Shadow and Djinn. With a fresh mindset and a more mature and sure-footed outlook, Majid went about directing a short film first, The Intruder (2011), about a couple who meet a strange creature on a lonely night in the desert.

‘I was deeply inspired by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, and decided to adapt one of his episodes,’ he says. ‘It was mostly silent, and I wanted the camera to tell the story.’ It was well-received, though not outstanding, and when a childhood favourite actor came up to Majid and told him he’s not cut out for movies, Majid was understandably crushed.

‘That’s why it took so long to make a feature,’ he continues. ‘I wanted to be sure of everything, and I worked tirelessly for over a year on Zinzana, going back to the drawing board over and over again to fine-tune something or the other.’ All the hard work paid off. Following Zinzana’s success, Majid won Variety’s coveted Arab Filmmaker of the Year Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, and last month, Netflix acquired its global streaming rights. He was also signed on by United Talent Agency, one of the world’s largest talent agencies with headquarters in Beverly Hills.

Zinzana was written by Americans Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye as a very southern film, but it is so dynamic. It can be made anywhere.’ 
Majid is especially pleased with Netflix’s foray into the Middle East’s content sphere. ‘Image Nation pours money into international projects so it has the money to fund Arab cinema, which is so far not known to make money,’ he explains. ‘But this can be turned on its head if Netflix gets aggressive. It’s so content-driven, and we have such great film-makers here, the results could be revolutionary.’

Another change that could truly transform the Arab content landscape here, believes Majid, is the opening up of Saudi Arabia. With the kingdom’s first movie theatre reportedly under construction, this is a completely untapped market with massive commercial potential. ‘Once the country diversifies its economy, we’ll be flooding the market – I mean, this is a country where 80 per cent of the population only speaks Arabic. It’s huge.’

For now Majid is basking in the glow of success – and being newly-wed. ‘All I do when I have time is watch movies, so my wife is showing me different sides to life,’ he smiles. ‘I watch movies I’ve already seen with her [he always watches a new film alone], and she’s my barometer when it comes to understanding what works and what doesn’t in a film. I make mental notes of her reactions at every scene.’

If films such as Zinzana, and the Bedouin thriller Theeb by Naji Abu Nowar (nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year) are any indication, Arab cinema has already entered its renaissance.

By Tania Bhattacharya

By Tania Bhattacharya