Pierre Morel, director of 2008 movie Taken, was still cutting his teeth in the film industry when he first travelled to the UAE in 1996 to serve as a cinematographer for the National Day celebrations.
“I was a young cameraman back then,” he tells The National. “I was one of the crew filming the 25th anniversary ceremony of the creation of the Emirates. I remember Sheikh Zayed [the Founding Father] was there. Being back here close to the 50th anniversary has made me feel part of the UAE’s story. I hope to be back for the 75th!”
The French filmmaker has now returned to the country not to mark the Golden Jubilee but to release his newest film, which shines a light on a darker passage of Emirati history.
Al Kameen, which will be released in cinemas across the UAE on Thursday, is set in the thick of the Yemen war and follows a group of Emirati soldiers as they embark on a rescue mission to save their compatriots who are trapped in a canyon by rebel fighters.
With its tense premise and tumultuous battle scenes, Al Kameen doesn’t shy from the gruesome realities of war – yet, Morel doesn’t think of it as a mere war film.
“There’s a lot of special effects. A lot of explosions,” he says. “But it’s not about the action. The film is not about the war. It’s about the emotional journey and the connection you have with the characters. Even though it’s a story set in Yemen, in the Arab world, and I don't speak Arabic, I saw something universal. A story about brotherhood. It’s more about dedication and love than war.”
As the film is based on true events, Morel says he felt a sense of duty and respect to the soldiers who lived through the experience.
“It’s something I kept in mind while making the film. It’s not a spectacle. It’s not fun,” he says. “War is never a good thing. So we have a lot of respect for all that and for the military who are still there.”
Produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi and AGC Studios, Al Kameen features an Emirati cast with emerging and established names such as Mansoor Alfeeli, Omar Bin Haider, Mohammed Ahmed, Khalifa Albahri and Marwan Abdullah.
“I had a blast working with those actors,” Morel says. “I think it was a very specific experience for them because, within the Emirati population, everybody has a family member or a relation who has been to Yemen. So all of the members of the cast had that experience, and could use that to feed the emotions they needed for the film.”
In a quest for authenticity, Morel also made it mandatory for the cast to attend a military boot camp for a few weeks before filming began, so that “they not only got fit and in shape but also became completely immersed in the military universe”.
“They had to learn the special lingo, how soldiers behaved and spoke to each other and it’s something you don’t learn while you’re a civilian.”
Morel says he was conflicted about directing an Arabic film, but said he overcame that barrier by being mindful of the actors’ emotional delivery of the lines. “I didn’t understand the words. I got the music, I got the tone. I figured out what was right, what wasn’t. We had our way to communicate, which made it a very interesting experience. That’s what I like, that’s what attracted me to the story even though it is out of my usual realm of culture. It’s a universal story and the feelings and emotions are universal.”
Another novelty for Morel was working as a filmmaker in an austere and arid landscape. While the director had visited the country’s deserts before and had explored its ochre dunes, he had never come across the cliffs and mountainous expanses that can be found on the outskirts of Ras Al Khaimah, where the film was shot.
“Shooting in a wadi in the middle of the desert was demanding,” he says. “Of course the heat was a factor to consider. The experience was interesting and intense. It was a beautiful landscape, there was a variety of things I didn’t imagine. I didn’t know how mountainous it was.”
These conditions meant the crew had to be resourceful and meticulously organised during shooting excursions.
“We had a great crew,” Morel says. “One which was very representative of this nation with more than 45 different nationalities.”
The environment, Morel says, also helped to dial up the stress and emotional complexity required for the film.
“Going every day to the same location, in those vehicles, in that canyon and starting again with the heat, the explosions, there is a sensation of being locked there, which I think played a part in how our actors delivered,” he says.
“When you portray something really bad happening to one of those guys, there’s a real tension that builds up and you need to make it right. Once again, the action is a backdrop for the emotions.”
Al Kameen is now showing in cinemas across the UAE