Emirati helmer Majid Al Ansari, who will be honored with Variety’s Mid-East Filmmaker of the Year award at the 66th Berlin Intl. Film Festival, owes his career as a director to being scared witless as a child.
“My mum’s from Kuwait, so we used to travel there a lot,” says Al Ansari, whose 2015 feature debut, “Zinzana” aka “Rattle the Cage,” was the first genre movie of its kind produced in the United Arab Emirates. “My uncles were film buffs, they studied abroad, and when they came back, they came back with a lot of films. I remember when I was 8 years old one of them showed me ‘The Exorcist.’ It scarred me for the rest of my life.”
Collecting his own personal library of VHS tapes, the young Al Ansari soon developed a taste for all kinds of genre movies. He was 16 or 17 when, while watching a Japanese anime, he began to realize the power of storytelling.
“I was, like, ‘Wow, I would love to make a live-action version of this,” he says. “And that’s where the idea really initiated. I went back to school and said, ‘I want to go study film.’ Of course I got laughed at — being from the UAE, it’s not exactly common to be a filmmaker. But I just wouldn’t let it go.”
At that time, the Emirati filmmaking industry barely existed, so Al Ansari’s dream took him all over the region, taking internships and learning through experience. He cites a stint as a location assistant trainee as being the job that most acclimatized him to the practicalities of shooting. However, it wasn’t until he started an internship in the development department of Participant Media that Al Ansari’s career began in earnest.
“That’s where I learned about the art of storytelling and gained an understanding of structure,” he says. “I would read four or five scripts a day, give an analysis of them and write a synopsis.”
After this Al Ansari decided to make his first short film, “The Intruder!,” a low-budget sci-fi movie that he describes as being a joint homage to legendary American B-movie producer Roger Corman and “The Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling.
“It was a really selfish short film because I just wanted to see where I was at, in terms of being a storyteller and a filmmaker,” he says.
Encouraged by Image Nation’s Michael Garin, Al Ansari went to work at that media and entertainment company, where he described himself as “a fly on the wall,” learning the business of film as opposed to the nuts and bolts.
It was here that Al Ansari pitched “Zinzana,” a tense two-hander set in a remotely situated prison.
“Part of my job at Image Nation was to read scripts and find things that we could adapt,” Al Ansari says. “At that point in the UAE there was such minimal talent in the region in terms of writers who could really structure scripts the way we wanted them, that we signed up for (screenplay website) the Black List.”
And that’s where he found the “Zinzana” script by Lane and Ruckus Skye.
“I’m a huge genre fan and thriller fan and I loved the characters and the world it was set in. It was definitely a genre world — in fact, it was more about the characters and the genre than the location. So I put it down, thought about it for a day, and then I picked it up again and re-read it, this time as if it was going to be an Arabic film. I thought, ‘You know what? It’s a big gamble, but if it works it could be something that really breaks the mold that we have here.’”
Before going into production, Al Ansari reflected on his experiences with his short.
“When I showed ‘The Intruder!’ at the Dubai Film Festival, everyone looked at me, like, ‘What the fuck are you doing? You’re an Emirati, you shouldn’t be doing this. Talk about your community, talk about real life.’ So when I did ‘Zinzana,’ I felt I couldn’t go that far out again, but I felt that this story had a good balance — there was an evil guy and a good guy that needed redemption. I was aware that I was doing a genre film, but I was also keeping the kind of element that the community was interested in.”
The result was not just a big hit in the UAE, but also a genre hit internationally, premiering at festivals throughout Europe and the U.S. and bringing Al Ansari to the world’s attention.
“It’s about inspiring future generations,” says Al Ansari of the Variety Mid-East Filmmaker of the Year honor. “I don’t want the next generation to go through what I went through. I want them to believe that there is a future for the industry here.
“I think the next generation are going to be the Oscar winners — the Spielbergs, the Kubricks. Having this award is just going to inspire them to aim for the best. And it will surely inspire me to make better films. It puts a lot of pressure on me for the next one. But for now, words can’t describe how happy I am.”