Looking back at one of the UAE's earliest film shoots with Revel Guest

The veteran British filmmaker shot two documentaries here in 1998

On the set of the documentary. Courtesy Transatlantic Films
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Nowadays, it's a regular occurrence to see international film and TV production crews on the streets, dunes and rooftops of the UAE. The past few years have seen major shoots from Hollywood, Bollywood, Korea, France, China, Finland and beyond land on these shores, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tiger Zinda Hai and two instalments of the Mission Impossible franchise among the biggest names to set up shop here.

Twenty years ago, that was not the case, and veteran filmmaker Revel Guest was among the first international crews to touch down on these shores in 1998, when she made two documentaries – one an episode of the popular American Travel Channel show Trailblazers, and the other an episode of the 26-part documentary Horse Tales which looked at the stables of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, and especially the work of horse whisperer Ali Al Ameri, as they prepared for the 1998 Endurance World Cup in Dubai.

KCMH43 Revel Guest, filmmaker, author, journalist and chair of the Hay Festival (site seen behind some pictures). christopher jones / Alamy Stock Photo
Revel Guest

Guest admits that the infrastructure for filming in the UAE at the time was limited, particularly in the desert, but she says she has nothing but positive memories of the experience: “The time I spent in Abu Dhabi I received nothing but courteousness, helpfulness and I was surprised by the freedom I was given as a woman,” she says. “My joy was the reception that I felt when visiting so many homes where I was made so welcome and given so many gifts. I found the desert life intriguing because I am particularly interested in learning about the philosophy and character of a country through its roots. One of the programmes I produced and directed in 1998 was on the subject of a remarkable horse whisperer, Ali Al Ameri.

“It was largely shot in the desert and my interest was to learn more about the relationship that a Bedouin has with his horse. They truly become reliant upon each other and I learnt a lot.”

One of the horses from Sheikh Zayed’s stables, preparing for the 1998 Endurance World Cup. Courtesy Transatlantic Films
One of the horses from Sheikh Zayed’s stables, preparing for the 1998 Endurance World Cup. Courtesy Transatlantic Films

One memory from Guest’s time here 20 years ago may still sound remarkably familiar to present-day residents, however: “My only scare was at the speed at which people drove between Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” she laughs.

Guest finally returned to the UAE in 2014 with the European Union Youth Orchestra, of which her husband was Chair, when they performed at the Abu Dhabi Festival. She says she’d “jump at” the opportunity to shoot here again, although she also concedes that a lot has changed since 1998: “Abu Dhabi was a very different place, and the charm of the early days, when it was possible to eat fabulous home-made food and buy lovely local materials or gold and jewellery from small shops, had been superseded by outstanding success, while still holding on to the charm and hospitality of the past,” she recalls.

“This was particularly true of Emirates Palace hotel. I remember particularly being entertained on two occasions by Sheikha Bint Saif Bin Mohammad Al Nahyan and being astounded by her brilliance, generosity and charitable work. I also found great interest in the possibility of a future Hay Festival Weekend, of which I was Chair, in the UAE.”

Guest’s ahead-of-the-trend UAE shoot wasn’t the first time the filmmaker had blazed a new trail. In 1955, she was one of the first women to stand for the United Kingdom parliament, and the youngest ever female Conservative candidate.

Her company, Transatlantic Films, is widely credited with creating the UK market for independent documentary filmmaking, and she is believed to be the first producer to convince the BBC to commission an out-of-house documentary, after she left the corporation to set up Transatlantic in 1968. She has since gone on to produce, direct, or both, all 130 of Transatlantic’s films.

Revel on set. Courtesy Transatlantic Films
Revel on set in the early days. Courtesy Transatlantic Films

How does one woman, in a pre-#MeToo era, convince a media behemoth such as the BBC to completely change its policy? With remarkable ease, says the woman herself. "I had been working as a producer/director on the BBC's current affairs programme, Panorama, for seven or eight years so they knew the responsibility I was prepared to accept," she explains. "As a member of staff, it depended on the interest that they had in the suggestions of the items put forward. My work was no surprise to them and they knew I would continue in the same vein."

Now 87 years old – and celebrating Transatlantic's 50th anniversary – Guest is still as active as ever. As recently as 2011, she executive produced Steven Spielberg's War Horse, and she is currently working on a film, The Moon is Down, to be shot in Norway and based on John Steinbeck's efforts to help the European countries that were occupied in the war. She is also working on a film about the story of the setting up of the first Women's Rugby World Cup Tournament, which was held in Wales in 1991. On top of that, Guest is in the process of trying to establish a permanent home for the 150 hours of historic footage that Transatlantic Films has produced over the past 50 years for future producers and audiences.

The dynamic octogenarian is showing no signs of slowing down, so I ask how she keeps motivated after so many long years in the business. “I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my work so far and do not remember any moment when I have been bored,” she says.

“So long as I can continue to produce projects that have a significance to this complicated moment in history, there is no thought of needing to be motivated.”


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