Exclusive: Sheikh Zayed movie producer: 'We will honour his inspirational life'

Film producer Robert Simonds talks to 'The National' about how he plans to bring a Sheikh Zayed biopic to the big screen

Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, Emir of Abu Dhabi (Photo by Genevieve Chauvel/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
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The nation was gripped with excitement by the announcement over the weekend that the Hollywood production house STX Films would be making a biography of the late Sheikh Zayed, who was the Founding Father of the UAE and a world statesman.

STX is the home of hit movies including Bad Moms, which was a surprise near $200m hit in summer 2016 starring Mila Kunis – unprecedented for an R-rated comedy – and Adrift, a Shailene Woodley survival thriller that opens in UAE cinemas next weekend.

Shekhar Kapur, who directed Elizabeth: The Golden Age, will take on direction duties for the as-yet-unnamed Sheikh Zayed movie, while Entourage writer Cliff Dorfman will provide the script, STX said.

Concerns from the local industry

However, there were some concerns from within the local industry. Award-winning filmmaker Amal Al Agroobi has been trying to get a Sheikh Zayed biopic off the ground in the UAE for some time, but has so far failed to secure funding. The filmmaker told The National that she is, overall, positive about the newly announced film, although she also expressed dismay that it should fall to Hollywood to tell one of the Arab region’s most fascinating stories.

“This seems to be the trend in the UAE, we consistently allow the West to tell our narrative, dictate our structure, solidify our history while we sit back and watch,” Al Agroobi said.

What Hollywood has to say about the film

With so little information available about the film, The National caught up with Robert Simonds, chairman and chief executive of STX Entertainment, the parent company of the film’s producer STX Films, to shed more light on the story.

First of all, I ask Simonds what had attracted his company to the story of Sheikh Zayed, a man who, despite being legendary in the Gulf region, is perhaps not quite so familiar to western audiences. “Sheikh Zayed was a natural-born leader whose teachings of tolerance, compassion and unity were essential to a path to peace,” Simonds says. “He took competing interests and forged common ground, ruling with humanity and integrity. His gentle, yet powerful example is ingrained in the fabric of modern day UAE’s culture. These heroic themes are what drew us to want to bring this story to life on screen.”

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock (5212714bh)
Robert Simonds, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of STX Entertainment
Longines Masters, Day 3, Los Angeles, America - 03 Oct 2015
We spoke to Robert Simonds, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of STX Entertainment, about the film. Rex

Addressing the question of Hollywood telling the story of such a vital regional figure, Simonds was at pains to point out that his company’s intention is not to offer a glitzy, glamorous, Tinseltown interpretation of Sheikh Zayed’s life, but to share his compelling story honestly with global audiences. “Our aim is to create a film that honours Sheikh Zayed’s inspirational life and accomplishments,” he says. “We are in great hands with Bafta-winning director Shekhar Kapur, whose beautiful work with historic dramas, such as Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, about England’s Queen Elizabeth I, were globally well received.”

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - DECEMBER 11:  Shekhar Kapur during a portrait session at the 10th Annual Dubai International Film Festival held at the Madinat Jumeriah Complex on December 11, 2013 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for DIFF)
Shekhar Kapur will direct. Getty

Kapur’s work on those two films won him two Oscars, a Bafta for Best Film and numerous other award nominations, and Simonds clearly thinks the new film could follow a similar trajectory. “We believe Sheikh Zayed’s story has the potential to garner Academy Award attention along the lines of what Gandhi and Darkest Hour achieved,” he says.

A still from 1998 Shekar Kapur film 'Elizabeth'.

The film is still in the very early stages, with only the director and writer so far attached to the project. Simonds admits that, as yet, the producers have not had the opportunity to consult with Sheikh Zayed’s family directly on the movie. Already, however, many in the region are wondering if the film will be shot here, who will star, whether it will use local crew and cast and, of course, when they can watch it.

Unfortunately, as is often the way on the long and winding road to producing a movie, Simonds can’t answer any of these questions yet, although he does have some words of encouragement for those who hope to take part in the making of the film, or even just catch a glimpse of it being made. “We haven’t yet started scouting shooting locations on this project, but our aim is to stay true and authentic to Sheikh Zayed’s vision and as such, we’ll look to be as inclusive as possible,” he says. “We are in the very early stages of the film but promise to keep you and your readers updated as we move forward.”   

Social media reactions 

Social media was naturally abuzz at the news when it first came out last week. 

Twitter user Aliiiive claimed the news was “the best thing I’ve ever seen”

Cinema Akil founder Butheina Kazim seemed thrilled at the news that the film was “finally” happening too.

Not everyone was joining the party though. For Twitter user RS_IdealRomeo, no one is worthy of playing the great man.


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