Barriers no match for producer's passion

At just 25, Mona al Ruwaini can list the popular Prince of Poets TV show and several Hollywood casting jobs among her achievements.

11/06/09 -  Mona al Ruwaini, the youngest Arab world female producer at age 25, is working on a new series Of Prince Of Poets, a reality show style comp launching on Thursday night on Abu Dhabi TV.  (Andrew Henderson/The National) *** Local Caption ***  ah_090611_Producer_0078.jpg
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ABU DHABI // Mona al Ruwaini has pushed relatively unknown Arab actors on to the big screen alongside Hollywood heavyweights such as Johnny Depp, George Clooney and Jamie Foxx, but prefers to maintain a low profile for herself.

Behind the scenes, however, one of the Arab world's youngest female producers continues to champion local talent, is helping to promote Abu Dhabi as a filmmaking destination and is a producer on the highly popular television poetry contest, The Prince of Poets, which began its third season last night. In an interview, the 25-year-old Egyptian, who grew up in London, told the The National she developed a passion for the industry while working for her elder sister Nashwa's media production company, Pyramedia, in Cairo's Media Production City. Nashwa, a television chat show host, was a key role model who was "the driving force" to her career in film and television, she said.

Now based in Abu Dhabi, Ms al Ruwaini has cast Arab actors for Hollywood movies such as The Kingdom, Syriana and Pirates of the Caribbean 3, helping to promote local talent, which she says has been absent from the big screen for years. "So many Asians have been cast as Arabs for years," she said. "Now it's our turn to take the talent we have here in the region and promote them on the international stage.

"Now we have a big database of actors, both established and up-and-coming ones." Among the actors she has helped take into the international arena is the Syrian Ghassan Massoud, 51, previously known for his work in television and theatre. "We took him out of his comfort zone and elevated him to the big screen when we had him cast in Kingdom of Heaven and Pirates of the Caribbean 3," said Ms al Ruwaini.

Massoud's star performance as the Muslim leader Saladin in Kingdom of Heaven, which depicts a 12th- century Muslim-Christian battle for Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, won the director, Ridley Scott, praise from historians for the accuracy of his portrayal of Muslims. "It's amazing to be a part of development like this, seeing actors grow and be recognised," Ms al Ruwaini said.

By her own admission, Ms al Ruwaini "wears many hats" at Pyramedia. As well as handling casting and production, she is the company's marketing director. She is unperturbed by the long hours involved in forging her career in an industry which she says is 95 per cent male. "It's been hard to be in my position and get the men to follow my instructions," she said. "I just take on my field marshal persona, though, and I have to put my foot down. I tell them that I might be young and female but they have to live with it."

Such male domination is not restricted to the young industry of Abu Dhabi. "It's just as male-dominated in Cairo," Ms al Ruwaini said, "although you do get a few more women involved there - actresses, producers and so on. It's so much more of a developed industry there and in Lebanon though, and Abu Dhabi is just starting out." She believes that her elder sister, who was the youngest Arab television female presenter when she launched the chat show that bears her name, is a great role model for women in the region.

"Seeing a woman, unveiled, on the television has become more normalised thanks to Nashwa," she said. "When she first started, it was shocking; she was doing something which hadn't really been done before. She became who she is just by challenging things, and hopefully one day I'll do something similar." Ms al Ruwaini said producing The Prince of Poets, in which 35 poets from the region - including four women - will compete for the coveted title of "Prince of Poets" and a Dh1 million (US$272,000) prize, gives her immediate reward and satisfaction.

"You can work on a show's pre-production for three months but as soon as it goes on air you get the feedback, the comments. You get to see the results of all the hard work instantly." This year's programme's set at Al Raha Theatre is a replica of Al Jahili Fort, adding yet another Abu Dhabi element to the show, which is seen around the region on Abu Dhabi TV and the Poetry Channel. In spite of the obstacles in her path, Ms al Ruwaini said people's scepticism made her only more driven.

"It's such a big responsibility but I'm obsessed with my work, and the more people expect me to mess up, the more it pushes me."