It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms
It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us?



It’s not often that you get to turn your Saturday-nights-watching-Columbo-taught detective skills to the world’s most eagerly anticipated film, especially in your own backyard. But when rumours emerged that the filming for Star Wars: Episode VII wasn’t just under way, but was under way in the Middle East, picking up the musty scent of Skywalkers, Wookies and J J Abrams suddenly became top priority.

It began — as almost everything appears to do these days — with a blog post. The online fan journal Jedi News reported that filming was currently under way in Cairo, Egypt (before moving to Abu Dhabi). Yes, the very same Cairo that is home to just under eight million people, has undergone major upheavals in the past few years and still isn’t a place you’d consider “perfectly chilled for a top-secret Disney shoot”.

With our eyebrows cocked to quizzical, we began our enquiries. Scepticism was instantly appeased when several solid sources in the Egyptian film industry claimed that there was absolutely no way on Earth it could be going on without them — or someone they knew — having heard about it, and they hadn’t. It was, said one, actually taking place in Jordan — a rather more plausible option and a place that has provided the backdrop for a few massive blockbusters (Transformers, Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker).

But no, The Royal Film Commission of Jordan, which oversees all such productions, flat out denied it.

So what about Jedi News claiming that filming would move to Abu Dhabi? It couldn’t be going on right under our noses, could it? Surely someone had just been spotted still in costume from Comic-Con the week earlier and had let their imaginations run wild. We were dubious that something as massive as Star Wars could have sneaked into the UAE — which isn’t bashful when it comes to talking about massive stuff going on — without us having heard something.

Initial digging proved predictably fruitless, with twofour54 — the only Abu Dhabi production company really big enough to handle such a project and the parent organisation of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission — saying they hadn’t heard of anything. But then, slowly but surely, other teasing nuggets of info started coming out of the woodwork.

A rather big cheese in the local industry revealed he’d known about the shoot “for ages”, but couldn’t say more despite our best attempts at Jedi mind trickery. Other sources hinted that a production crew had been hired, while production companies in Dubai said they weren’t involved as it was “all happening in Abu Dhabi”. A contact, not in the film business, claimed to know someone who spotted Abrams on a flight to the capital in recent weeks. It seemed we were on to something.

In perhaps the most amusing bit of investigative reporting, a friend told us that her colleague had been chatting to a fellow via the iPhone app Tinder, who — in a gross act of flirtation — had revealed that he was an assistant director on a major film shoot in Abu Dhabi, inviting her to guess what? That’s right, Star Wars.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of harmless bragging, but when you’re working on perhaps the most secretive film production of the decade, perhaps it’s better just to lie and claim you’re an astronaut or Bradley Cooper). Naturally, we called the poor guy (who shall remain nameless), only for him to, unsurprisingly, deny all knowledge and even assert he was working on Fast & Furious (of which he’s not listed as among the crew). His name was, however, listed as being among the crew for the last round of Star Wars films, beginning with Episode III. Hmm.

Next up, we needed a location. We had heard that the film would recreate Tatooine, the desert-like planet that is the home of Anakin and Luke Skywalker, Jabba the Hutt and everyone’s favourite alien spit-and-sawdust hangout, the Mos Eisley Cantina, so it was unlikely to be taking place at Marina Mall. Then the name Qasr Al Sarab, the vast fort-like resort out in the Liwa Desert, came to our attention, with reports that it had been booked up long in advance.

Unconfirmed but reliable sources later stated that the hotel was indeed housing the cast and crew, but that filming itself was happening elsewhere, no doubt out in a specially created set. Also, there are rooms available now and through most of May — save for a week-long block starting on May 19 — we checked.

Sadly, attempts to locate this new Tatooine using Google Earth came crashing when we noticed the satellite image of the area we were desperately squinting at had been taken more than a year ago.

It was at about this point that the international press waded in, with The Hollywood Reporter saying that it had heard shooting in Abu Dhabi would begin in mid-May and would last for four weeks.

Which brings us up to speed. We haven’t yet seen physical, visible proof — a Battle Droid taking some R& R on the Corniche or Mark Hamill tweeting “LOVING MY TIME IN ABU DHABI FOR THE STAR WARS SHOOT! LOL!” (in fact, social media has been impressively absent of any decent SW gossip) — but all fingers (human, robotic or Ewok) appear to be pointing towards Abu Dhabi, and it’s all rather exciting.

Or, should we say: exciting, it is.

artslife@thenational.ae

Tottenham's 10 biggest transfers (according to transfermarkt.com):

1). Moussa Sissokho - Newcastle United - £30 million (Dh143m): Flop

2). Roberto Soldado - Valencia - £25m: Flop

3). Erik Lamela - Roma - £25m: Jury still out

4). Son Heung-min - Bayer Leverkusen - £25m: Success

5). Darren Bent - Charlton Athletic - £21m: Flop

6). Vincent Janssen - AZ Alkmaar - £18m: Flop

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8). Luka Modric - Dynamo Zagreb - £17m: Success

9). Paulinho - Corinthians - £16m: Flop

10). Mousa Dembele - Fulham - £16m: Success

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Starring: Janhvi Kapoor, Ishaan Khattar, Ashutosh Rana

Stars: 3

Honeymoonish

Director: Elie El Samaan

Starring: Nour Al Ghandour, Mahmoud Boushahri

Rating: 3/5

About Takalam

Date started: early 2020

Founders: Khawla Hammad and Inas Abu Shashieh

Based: Abu Dhabi

Sector: HealthTech and wellness

Number of staff: 4

Funding to date: Bootstrapped

Company Profile

Company name: Namara
Started: June 2022
Founder: Mohammed Alnamara
Based: Dubai
Sector: Microfinance
Current number of staff: 16
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Family offices

Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey
Avedis Hadjian, (IB Tauris)
 

Company profile

Company name: Leap
Started: March 2021
Founders: Ziad Toqan and Jamil Khammu
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech
Investment stage: Pre-seed
Funds raised: Undisclosed
Current number of staff: Seven

Herc's Adventures

Developer: Big Ape Productions
Publisher: LucasArts
Console: PlayStation 1 & 5, Sega Saturn
Rating: 4/5

Specs: 2024 McLaren Artura Spider

Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo V6 and electric motor
Max power: 700hp at 7,500rpm
Max torque: 720Nm at 2,250rpm
Transmission: Eight-speed dual-clutch auto
0-100km/h: 3.0sec
Top speed: 330kph
Price: From Dh1.14 million ($311,000)
On sale: Now

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Revibe
Started: 2022
Founders: Hamza Iraqui and Abdessamad Ben Zakour
Based: UAE
Industry: Refurbished electronics
Funds raised so far: $10m
Investors: Flat6Labs, Resonance and various others

UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets
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The internal combustion engine is facing a watershed moment – major manufacturer Volvo is to stop producing petroleum-powered vehicles by 2021 and countries in Europe, including the UK, have vowed to ban their sale before 2040. The National takes a look at the story of one of the most successful technologies of the last 100 years and how it has impacted life in the UAE.

Part three: an affection for classic cars lives on

Read part two: how climate change drove the race for an alternative 

Read part one: how cars came to the UAE

KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN MARITIME DISPUTE

2000: Israel withdraws from Lebanon after nearly 30 years without an officially demarcated border. The UN establishes the Blue Line to act as the frontier.

2007: Lebanon and Cyprus define their respective exclusive economic zones to facilitate oil and gas exploration. Israel uses this to define its EEZ with Cyprus

2011: Lebanon disputes Israeli-proposed line and submits documents to UN showing different EEZ. Cyprus offers to mediate without much progress.

2018: Lebanon signs first offshore oil and gas licencing deal with consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek.

2018-2019: US seeks to mediate between Israel and Lebanon to prevent clashes over oil and gas resources.

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Starring: Prabhas, Saswata Chatterjee, Deepika Padukone, Amitabh Bachchan, Shobhana

Rating: ★★★★

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Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cylinder petrol
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Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Price: From Dh61,500
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Name: Haltia.ai
Started: 2023
Co-founders: Arto Bendiken and Talal Thabet
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: AI
Number of employees: 41
Funding: About $1.7 million
Investors: Self, family and friends