The latest Emirati-directed movie from the Image Nation Abu Dhabi stable, is Majid Al Ansari’s Zinzana (Rattle the Cage), which remains a mystery to audiences in the UAE. However, that could soon change with a release date expected in December. The sci-fi thriller has been delighting festival audiences in the United States and the United Kingdom throughout October with a global premiere at Austin, Texas’s annual genre film extravaganza Fantastic Fest and a screening at the BFI London Film Festival shortly afterwards.
“The audience at Fantastic Fest really love genre films and it was great to be able to showcase there,” says Al Ansari. We had a really good reception and it was great to hear the audience’s thoughts. Everyone fell in love with the characters, and there was a really good Twitter response too.”
Al Ansari seemed to have been in his element among the festival’s gathered genre film buffs too: “The Fest is incredible,” he says. “People here just love films, literally everyone here. Usually festivals are a mix of businessmen, film makers and fans, but here, everyone loves films, is talking about films, the energy and passion is amazing – just being with so many people who love movies. I feel like I’m home.”
He continues: “I’ve met a lot of people here, people that I can imagine working with in future. The Image Nation team are here with me introducing me to a lot of people and also my agent from United Talent Agency has been a great help and hooked me up with a lot of people.”
Al Ansari’s signing up by UTA was only announced just before the movie’s premiere, but he explains the relationship has been developing somewhat longer than that. “I only signed with them recently, but I’ve known my agent for at least two years since I was an executive at Image Nation, and we always talked about when I’d make my first film,” he says. “After he watched it he was like ‘whoa – I didn’t know you could make films.’ He’s a great guy and I’m really happy to be working with him.”
Having come through the ranks at Image Nation, Al Ansari could well serve as a text book example of the Abu Dhabi production house’s efforts to build a solid Emirati film industry, and also an example of the sacrifices needed for aspiring film makers to find themselves finally sitting at their first movie’s global premiere: “I started at Image Nation in 2010, and before that I was with the old Abu Dhabi Film Commission,” he says. “I knew I wanted to make films, so I just started out interning, even at a couple of places where I just cleaned the equipment or even the bathrooms at first. I never really had a stable job initially and pay was very bad, but that’s kind of a test of whether you really want to do it or not.”
He continues: “Then I started at the old ADFC under David Shepherd before Image Nation took me under their wing. I did all kinds of work that I needed to do as an intern, then came back and did my short film and stayed on to learn about the business side of things, which was [Image Nation chief] Michael Garin’s suggestion and I think it’s been really crucial. I did that for about two and a half years before I did Zinzana and with Michael, [Image Nation chairman]Mohamed Al Mubarak and [head of narrative] Ben Ross at Image Nation I’ve had incredible mentors.
“I would just sit in on meetings, but what that meant was that when it came to doing deals for Zinzana, I wasn’t just that naive artist, I knew how to deal with the studios. Too many artists think they can just get the studio to give them the money then go and do their own thing, but it doesn’t work like that.”
Zinzana began shooting last September in Jordan – a decision that Al Ansari explains was largely logistical since the cast and crew were from all over the Arab world and it offered a central and visa-free environment, but the director began preparing long before that.
“I started prepping last summer, he says. “I probably did about four months prepping on my own before we even got to Jordan. Ben Ross gave me loads of advice there from his days directing films, and taught me that prep is vital. Basically you make your film in prep and you manage it while you’re shooting. So I had everything planned, although it was flexible as I was working with two incredible actors in the leads [Lone Survivor and Homeland’s Ali Suleiman and Salt of the Sea’s Saleh Bakri]. The energy that they brought to the table is definitely one of the reasons it’s been so well received. It’s a totally performance-driven film, all set in one location. As a director, my ambition was to really showcase their talents in a way they’d never been seen before, even though they’ve both been in some amazing films. I hope if I’ve accomplished anything as a director, it’s for people to come and go ‘wow, that’s the best film I’ve seen Ali and Saleh in.’”
With so much work ahead to spread the message of Zinzana around the world, Al Ansari doesn’t have any firm plans for his next project, though he says he has ‘ideas.’ His first goals are more immediate: “I’m really looking forward to the UAE release,” he says. “That’s the thing I’m most excited about now. So the next thing is to get the film in cinemas.”