Going to Heaven producer Amer Salmeen Al Murry: ‘Slowly Emirati cinema is becoming recognised’

The film producer tell us that originality and quality are the keys to global success in the movie industry.

Going to Heaven tells the story of Sultan, a young Emirati who is at a loss following the death of his mother and his father’s remarriage. Courtesy Image Nation Abu Dhabi
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The release of Going to Heaven marks another great week in what is already shaping up to be an impressive year for Emirati film.

It is the third UAE film to reach cinemas this year, following the release in January of Majid Al Ansari's critically acclaimed Zinzana, and last week's De Fhay Abu Dhabi.

From A to B director Ali F Mostafa's eagerly anticipated The Worthy is due out soon, too.

Co-produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Going to Heaven – from the sibling team of producer Amer and writer-director Saeed Salmeen Al Murry (Sundress, 2010) – tells the story of Sultan, a young Emirati who is at a loss following the death of his mother and his father's remarriage.

Finding solace in memories of his missing maternal grandmother, Sultan sets off from his Abu Dhabi home to track down her down in Fujairah. He is accompanied by his best friend, Saud, and together they embark on an adventure across the Emirates in search of the love Sultan craves.

Sultan and Saud are played by real-life brothers Jumaa Ibrahim, 12, and Ahmed Ibrahim Al Zaabi, 14, who had no previous acting experience.

Amer says the decision to use inexperienced actors in the lead roles presented a great challenge.

“They had no experience at all,” he says. “Not in films, or TV or on a stage. My brother worked very, very hard on them, training them for eight or nine months before we started to shoot.

“But when you watch them on screen, you will not believe they had no experience with a camera. It was a risk, but my brother was looking for kids who would be innocent, like street kids, and they just matched very nicely.

“The training was very important but it succeeded. They spent almost all of that eight or nine months together, going to malls, to restaurants. We were ready for the challenge and I think we succeeded. You could say we’ve created two new actors.”

Going to Heaven is the latest in a growing slate of Emirati movies, and had an Emirati cast and crew, plus funding from the Ministry of the Interior, the Dubai International Film Festival's Enjaaz fund and Abu Dhabi Culture.

However, Amer is keen to dispel the notion that there is a set recipe for “Emirati cinema”.

“This movie is very different in its treatment, its photography and direction,” he says. “We stepped out from the box of the ‘Emirati movie’ – the story is completely different to anything else.

“It’s an international story. It happens in America, in Japan, in Egypt – we don’t want it to only be fit for local people. We have to talk about stories that will be understood in international places. That’s why we have been accepted by festivals all over the world later this year, in South Korea, Los Angeles, New York, Egypt – it’s a totally different treatment.”

Although the aim was to make an Emirati film with a definite international appeal, Amer is quick to add it is not an attempt to simply mimic a Hollywood movie.

“Our cinema is new and slowly Emirati cinema is becoming recognised, but we are working in quality cinema, not in a totally commercial way,” he says.

“I don’t want to make comedy or action. We need to establish an audience that will like the quality of the movie. At this time we are building cinema. We don’t want to make cheap movies – we have to respect the quality for the audience, locally and internationally.”

In other words, the film needs to have artistic merit as well as cross-cultural commercial ­appeal.

“Audiences won’t go to see an Emirati film if it solely aims to be commercial,” says Amer. “We need the storytelling to be good, the acting to be good, the directing to be good.

“Even if you put Dh70million into trying to make some ­Hollywood-style action film, audiences will feel it’s not the same thing as Hollywood cinema, and the problem you will face is there is no market for it. American movies can spend US$120 million (Dh440.7m) on a film, but they have a huge market for it. That’s why they invest all that money.”

In the Middle East, the film industry is very different, as are the storytelling traditions.

“When Arabs try to make a big-budget action movie, it just doesn’t fit,” says Amer. “It won’t make you money back – there isn’t the market for making ­multi-million-dirham films. Look at French movies, Italian movies ... they succeed because they recognise their strengths and they don’t try to be Hollywood.

“They make quality cinema, reality cinema. That’s what we need to learn when we make movies.”

Going to Heaven is in cinemas now