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With ‘Bilal’ Animated Fare Is Newly Abloom In Mideast Region

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, “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.

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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.

“Our vision is based on looking for heroes that history has forgotten and trying to tell their stories, adding some fantasy,” Jamal says. There are a few other examples of Arab animation movies out there, but they are restricted to the arthouse milieu.

Palestine’s foreign-language film submission to the Oscars last year was “The Wanted 18,” a documentary that uses stop-motion animation, interviews and reenactments by Palestinian director Amer Shomali and Canada’s Paul Cowan. It tells the story of how 18 cows, which were used for independent milk production on a Palestinian collective farm, were considered “a threat to the national security of the state of Israel” during the first Palestinian intifada.

“That was a rare case,” says Intishal Al Timimi, who heads the Sanad Abu Dhabi Film Fund for Arab cinema, noting that “animation is too time-consuming and expensive,” unless you have an industry infrastructure in place.

Another potentially groundbreaking exception is in very early stages.
Haifaa Al Mansour, considered the first female director to come from cloistered Saudi Arabia and known for female empowerment pic “Wadjda,” is developing animation feature “Miss Camel,” with financing from the Doha Film Insitute.

Per the DFI, “Miss Camel” turns on “a teenage Saudi camel who challenges the deep-rooted restrictions of her culture by traveling across the kingdom to compete in the Miss Camel beauty pageant in Doha.”

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