The news landed during the Gulf Film Festival last week in Dubai, and came as a huge shock to many of the attendees.
Tim Smythe, the head of the Dubai-based production house Filmworks and a man instrumental in shaping the UAE's emerging film industry, had died.
Few had been aware of his illness; several spoke of conversations they'd had just weeks earlier. But while he kept his long battle with cancer low-key, as he did much of his work, Smythe - who first came to the Middle East from his native South Africa in 1993 - arguably had a bigger impact on the local film scene than any other, being the driving force behind many of its crowning achievements.
With Filmworks, which he founded in 1998, Smythe helped attract high-profile features such as Syriana and The Kingdom to the UAE, along with 2011's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Initially, Mission: Impossible was only scheduled to shoot in Dubai for a few days, but Smythe persuaded producers to use the emirate for the lion's share of the production, a huge coup for the film industry. Last year, Smythe brought the big-budget Chinese action thriller Switch to Dubai for a week of shooting.
"He was always working bringing in projects and trying to put this city on the map for film production," says Masoud Amralla Al Ali, the artistic director of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), which hosted the world premiere of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. "He had this dream of building something. He was always saying, 'Yalla, let's do it. This country deserves a real cinematic industry.' I think today when we talk about production in the UAE, what jumps to mind first is Tim Smythe and Filmworks."
But while the big Hollywood features might be the headline grabbers, Smythe earned huge adoration in the industry by supporting local talent, with many of the country's rising stars having first learnt their craft under his guidance.
"Tim was the first person who helped me make my first film 15 years ago," says the Emirati director Nayla Al Khaja. "He completely supported me and gave me free equipment and crew."
When the big productions came to town, Smythe gave many filmmakers the chance to go on set and gain valuable first-hand experience, while also providing an ever-present sounding board when it came to advice.
"Tim impacted a lot of us. He helped shape and pave the way for a lot of filmmakers, so we owe him a big deal," says Al Khaja. "He was so low-key and a very real person. We're going to miss his presence, his soul and his humanity."
Smythe and Filmworks produced Ali F Mostafa's City of Life, the first independent feature to be shot entirely within Dubai and a film that has become something of a standard-bearer for locally made features.
"I promise you Tim, I will continue your torch," Mostafa wrote on Twitter after hearing the news, adding that he considered Smythe his mentor and calling him "the man who was UAE film".
"Tim's knowledge of the industry was second to none, and his hard work, passion and dedication to building the foundations of a film industry here in the UAE will never be forgotten," says Abdulhamid Juma, the chairman of DIFF.
"He was one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. We have lost a true pioneer. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time."
Smythe, who was 53, is survived by his wife Julie and three daughters, Kaya, Maya and Livia.
A memorial for Tim Smythe will be held in Dubai on Thursday at Christ Church Jebel Ali at 6pm
[ @LifeNationalUAE ]
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