This month marks the beginning of what is likely to become the most active period of filmmaking the UAE has ever seen. With cameras now rolling on the Arabic-language youth drama, Sea Shadow - the first from a slate of six features due over the coming years that will focus on Emirati stories - film crews could soon become a common sight throughout the country.
The programme is an attempt at jump-starting a UAE film industry capable of producing pictures with international appeal funded by Imagenation, the movie financing arm of Abu Dhabi Media Company (which also owns The National).
Set to go into production soon are the drama Million's Poet (based on the popular reality TV show), horror movie Djinn, adventure comedy Alaska and romances Monsoon and Alis and Aishas.
The shoot of Sea Shadow, on a strip of beach in Ras al Khaimah, was opened to members of the press earlier this week. Passers-by stopped to watch as giant umbrellas and boom microphones hovered above young actors' heads and cameras pointed at their faces. Dozens of people carrying cables, metal boxes and iced water, occasionally stopping to shout "lock it up!", "roll sound!" and of course, "action!" also helped draw the crowds.
Sea Shadow tells the story of 16-year-olds Mansour (Omar Almulla) and Kaltham (Neven Madi), who become friends in a traditional Ras al Khaimah neighbourhood. It is directed by the Emirati filmmaker Nawaf al Janahi (2009's The Circle) and written by RAK-born Mohammed Hassan Ahmed.
"My character is very strong; she is young, but she has to look after her whole family," said 17-year-old Madi. "I worked with the writer Mohammed Hassan Ahmed before on a TV show called Banat Shama and that was great, so I liked everything about the idea of this film."
Just eight days into Sea Shadow's five-week production schedule, the scenes being shot included an early encounter between the story's two central characters and a fight during a football game on the beach.
"It's more than a love story - it's a coming-of-age story about a guy who wants to express his emotions," said Rami Yasin, one of the film's producers. "There is this girl whom he has feelings for and he wants her to know that he cares."
The writer Ahmed said that despite being set in a community very much like the one in which he grew-up, Sea Shadow is not autobiographical.
"Lots of what appears in the story comes from my childhood, but lots of it is totally new. I wanted to create something believable, so I had to take from my life and the lives of people I knew growing up, but it's not the story of my youth," he said.
As anyone who has visited a film set will attest, the amount of people, time and equipment required to shoot just a few seconds of film can be astonishing. Production on Sea Shadow is certainly no different, except the crew regularly have to contend with temperatures of over 40°C. As well as all the iced water and umbrellas, black blankets are placed over the cameras when not in use to prevent overheating.
"The heat is really getting to me and it can make it pretty hard to do the job," one of the crew was heard to say. But the director, al Jani - the busiest man on set, constantly traipsing back and forth between the actors and a monitor screen in a small gazebo - was barely aware of the temperature.
When asked about the greatest challenges of the shoot so far, he simply replied: "Time".
As well as the heat, the crew members must contend with passers-by unwittingly walking into the background of shots while occasionally the less-experienced actors have to be reminded not to look directly at the camera.
Although most of the on-set jobs are anticipated months in advance, the production has also had to adapt to new challenges. Because Sea Shadow brings together actors from the UAE, Kuwait, Iraq and Syria, the filmmakers had to create the position of "dialect coach" to ensure all cast members spoke Emirati Arabic authentically.
"There are so many subtle differences between the way things are said just by people in the Gulf that it became really important to coach the actors on the proper dialect for the movie," said Nada Mohammad, who was originally hired as part of the script department. "The order of words in a sentence, like 'OK, goodbye, see you later' could really give away where someone is from. It's a problem that was not widely known before, but now that the film industry here is growing, it's getting more important."
The crew includes moviemaking veterans with dozens of productions under their belts and people who admit to having never stepped foot on a film set before. Many worked on 2009's City of Life, set in Dubai. With an estimated budget of Dh18-26 million, it was believed to be the most expensive UAE production to date. Although Yasin refused to reveal Sea Shadow's budget, he confirmed that City of Life will continue to hold that record for now.
Sea Shadow's producers are aiming for the film to be completed by May 2011, by which time some of the other films will be in production.
When asked whether he planned to screen the movie at the Cannes Film Festival that month, producer Yasin said: "Well, who knows - like I said, we have big dreams. We hope that [audiences] will be charmed by the film, that it will take them by surprise and that it will teach them a bit about the culture, which they won't have seen before in the movies.
"I hope they will realise that stories that take place here are just like the experience that teenagers in China, Russia, or anywhere in the world could experience and understand. Encounters with emotions and love," he said.