Anyone who knows me or has seen a single film of mine knows how much of a fan I am of contained films or genre films in general. And being a filmmaker in UAE, I always found genre films extremely lacking on a feature film level. So imagine my surprise when one day I stumbled upon the trailer of Zinzana, a slick looking neo-noir thriller that takes place entirely in a prison cell. I’ve been connected with filmmaker Majid Al Ansari ever since I watched his short film ‘The Intruder!’ in 2011, which was another genre piece that was unlike anything else from this region and now his new film has acclaim internationally.
As the film gears for its Middle East Premiere this Thursday at Dubai International Film Festival as well as releases in cinemas across the country, I took the opportunity to have a conversation with the director himself. Forty minutes later, we happened to connect over our love for genre films and passion for filmmaking. He’s truly a filmmaker who has earned his way up and has a unique vision that I can’t wait to see more of. Here’s the exchange below.
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I’d like to start at the beginning. What was one moment or film in your life growing up that you can recall that made you want to become a filmmaker?
Growing up, I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I knew that I loved films. My mom is from Kuwait, so I used to travel there for months at a time. My uncles all studied from abroad loved films and as a kid every time that I went to Kuwait I was surrounded by an environment of films that turned me into a film junkie. So I started bringing VHS tapes of movies back with me. I remember bringing 50-70 VHS tapes back with me from Kuwait and I got stopped at the airport. The security was looking at me dumbfounded, because back in those days you couldn’t bring that many VHS tapes back home. So I just loved movies for movies.
But when I realised I wanted to be a filmmaker was when I was 16. I used to be – and still am – a huge fan of anime. I remember watching anime – and a lot of anime guys would look down upon me for this – but I remember watching Naruto and Bleach. And as I was watching Bleach, I remember thinking ‘Wow, this needs to be a film’. From that idea, I said to myself that I want to make Bleach – the film. It was my last year in high school, so I went to my counsellor and told him that I want to apply for film instead of business. From then, I went on to do film but for some reason ended up doing music but still remained in the field of arts. So that’s how it all started.
Describe your journey as a filmmaker after that, with the first film that you made and onwards.
I wanted to be a filmmaker at 16, but the first film I ever made was when I was 21. So it took me a long time to make my first film. I’m not the kind of person who would pick up a camera and just go shoot. I love doing things right and knowing what I’m doing before doing something. So it took me a long time because even when I went to study film, I was driven to study music instead because it was more hands-on. Being young and studying film theory, I really didn’t find any interest in that and really wanted something physical to get my hands dirty. When I got back to UAE, I dabbled into New York Film Academy for a bit but didn’t last long.
But from there, I just picked up a camera and rented some equipment from Filmquip and did my first short film which was called ‘Colors’. It was more cinematography-based than it was story or narrative-based and through that I found my touch and what I was interested in. Because when you do your first short film, you’re so naive and you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re basing everything off the kind of films you watch but something about it is so pure. Sometimes I go back to see my first short and I kind of realise what kind of a filmmaker I am. It reminds me of what kind of films I like doing. From there, I transitioned into working on set and interned for a long time. Then I did my first professional short film called ‘The Intruder!’ So it took me a long time to get started, and now five years later I did my first feature.
I remember watching ‘The Intruder!’ at Dubai International Film Festival in 2011, and I remember at the time it was the only genre short film of its kind in the black of short films that night and I was fascinated to see someone do a stylistic sci-fi short in UAE. Tell us more about what led to that short film.
With ‘The Intruder!’, what I really wanted to do was to test myself. I believe that when you make a short film, it’s self-indulgent where it’s more about me than about the audience because for me shorts is about discovering yourself and discovering your vision. Even if I make a short film today, it’ll be all about challenging myself and experimenting. What I wanted to do with that film was to teach myself how I could have my camera speak my story. It was based on an episode of Twilight Zone, which is a brilliant TV show that unfortunately not a lot of people in the region are aware of. It’s created by Rod Sterling and it’s a sci-fi genre TV series from the 60’s that I really got into later in my life when I was 20. I just loved the storytelling and visual style of the show and still rewatch it to this day. For me, it’s a must-watch for genre filmmakers and sci-fi lovers. But they’re not just indulgent in the sci-fi aspect and are more about human beings and characters.
So when it came to ‘The Intruder!’, I wanted to really test myself visually and that’s why the film was silent and there was no dialogue save for one sentence of ADR. That’s why I really wanted to do it. And there’s a lot of mistakes that I learned from making ‘The Intruder!’. The film didn’t make any sense as a story or it was slow and boring and long. That’s something that I took back and reflected upon. And the reason I wanted to do Zinzana when I read the script is because it’s the bipolar of ‘The Intruder!’ as in it’s full of dialogue, story and character-driven.
What are some lessons you learned from the experience of making ‘The Intruder!’ that changed the way you approached Zinzana?
One major thing that I did differently with Zinzana compared to ‘The Intruder!’ was that I prepped the living hell out of it. With ‘The Intruder!’, I did not prep the story or the character development nor did I prep my shot list well. So when it came to Zinzana, I did about five months of prep. And I don’t mean being a producer because I had my producer. All I was doing for five months was shotlisting, storyboarding, character development, putting notes on the script, going back and changing things. It was all about the storytelling and five months of planning the story and the vision behind these characters. Ben Ross, who’s an executive at Imagenation Abu Dhabi, told me to prep the hell out the film because that’s how you’re really going to make a great film and now I’m a true believer that prep is actually making the film. When you shoot, you’re managing the film you’ve already made in the prep. That’s literally my method now and I told Imagenation that if you’re happy with me and we do another film together, I’d love to have even more time to prep the film because I’ve researched some of my favorite directors and all of them have the same advice – prep the living hell out of your film. So that’s my goal to do even more prep for the next film.
Zinzana is a contained thriller that takes place entirely in a prison, and that’s a genre I really love to both watch as a viewer and make as a filmmaker. I love films like Buried and always seek out contained films to really see how filmmakers tackle the challenges of telling a story in one location. Are you a fan of the subgenre and how did you tackle the challenges of shooting a feature film set in one location?
Absolutely. But the first reason I wanted to direct Zinzana was because it was character and performance-driven. As I’m sure you know, The Twilight Zone is all about the characters and performance. But I love that it was contained because that gives me a challenge. I love that challenge of how I’m going to make this interesting. The more I watched contained films like Phone Booth, Reservoir Dogs, 12 Angry Men or Buried, you realise these guys really planned their films. They didn’t just come on set and do it. Being contained didn’t limit me because it just meant that I had to prep more and that’s exactly what I did.
How did the production itself go? Was it a very relaxed shoot or was it very stressful for you in the amount of days that you had?
It was a happy production! I love good energy and I don’t get why filmmakers get upset on set because we’re doing what we love doing and I think that’s vital for me because I want everyone to be passionate and be happy to wake up in the morning and come to set. It wasn’t chaotic and it was a very collaborative spirit on set. We did about an average of 30 setups a day and granted that it was a one-location film, you could do faster setups. Sometimes, it went up to 34 and I think there was a day or two when it went to 40. But the reason it went so well was because I had an amazing cast who got it on the spot every time and a very collaborative team who were well-prepped and knew what we were doing. Of course, there was some improvisation from the performance side of things but when it came to the camerawork and visuals, we had all that planned out from ago and the AD’s planned accordingly.
I know the screenplay was purchased by Imagenation from a duo of American writers. How did you go about adapting it?
We did a couple of months of work adapting it. It was me, Rami Yasin (the producer), and a guy named Nidal Morra. But despite that, Ruckus and Lane Skye who are the original writers of the film I consider them very talented. It was all about the characters that live in a genre world and they knew the norms and the rules of the genre. That’s what I love about this film and that the overall theme is about family values and that’s something so universal that it could resonate anywhere in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s an Arabic film or an Asian film, because for an hour and a half you’re in this genre world created by Ruckus and Lane Skye.
Were there any particular films that you were influenced by when making Zinzana?
Honestly, a lot of films. From Asia to America, I learned by watching films. Before I started working fulltime, I tried to watch an average of three films and sometimes I watch an average of eight hours of film. So I watch a lot of films, but one specific cinema that I love the most is Asian cinema. I’m a huge fan of Park Chan-Wook, Akira Kurosawa, Sogo Ishii, Bong Joon-Hoo and more. Asian cinema has been a huge influence on me and in everything that I do.
Knowing that you studied music and sound design before you ventured into film, did that change the way you approached Zinzana? Reason I ask is because right from the trailer of the film itself, you can feel that a great deal of attention has been paid to how sound and the music plays together.
Definitely, I love music and studying music just made me appreciate it so much more. And because I had studied music, I dug deep into the style of music that I love. I’m a huge fan of 50’s and 60’s psychedelic music. Going to music will just help me get the kind of tone I want for my film. But I’m also a huge fans of musicals, particularly Baz Luhrmann who made films like Moulin Rouge and Great Gatsby. I love the craziness of his films, and actually the bad guy in Zinzana is actually modelled after a lot of things I love about his films.
But music helps me right in the prep itself. Whenever I read a script, I go to iTunes and create a new folder and call it the name of the film. Then I just go through my library and go through the music. For Zinzana, I had a playlist of 150 music tracks that inspired me as far as tone is concerned but I don’t even have them in the film. I only have 2 of those songs that went into the final film. But I love getting ideas when walking and listening to music and it plays a huge part in my life. I used to listen to three hours of music a day and I love discovering new artists.
It’s interesting to see so many recognisable actors from the Arab world in Zinzana and how you’ve cast them against type in the film. How was your relationship with the actors?
Ali Suliman and Saleh Bakri are two incredible actors that basically dominate most of the film and as much as I was directing them, for me it was an opportunity to learn from two amazing actors. At the end of the day, it was all about collaborating to make a good film. There were certain things I didn’t like and we changed them and certain things they didn’t and we worked around them so it was a very democratic atmosphere on set. I was very lucky to have them on my first film.
Are there any lessons you’d like to share with other filmmakers that you took from your experience on Zinzana and will apply on your future films?
Yeah, I think more than lessons it’s what I want to do differently. With Zinzana, I loved that it was one location and challenging. For the next one, I’d prep more and would love to do multiple locations and experiment a bit more. I played it a bit safe with Zinzana. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a crazy film. But I still gave myself a limit knowing that this was my first film so I didn’t want to go out of the range that I’m comfortable with. I did go out but not too far off, but the next film it’ll be doing that even more and trusting my guts. I wouldn’t even consider that experimenting because it’s just naturally lessons you learn and getting comfortable as you keep working on new things in film. Your first film is always uncomfortable because you can make or break yourself with one film. I didn’t want it to be my first and last film so I had to make sure I did everything right so I didn’t overly experiment. For the next one, I’ll definitely experiment a bit more with a boundary that I think is fitting for the story and characters. It’s just about enhancing things that I did here more than changing.
It made me really happy to see that your film screened at some of the biggest genre film festivals in the world like Fantastic Fest and got acclaimed reviews from prestigious outlets like Variety which really speaks to how universal the film is. I know there’s a big audience for genre films outside, but are you hoping there’s an audience in this region for such genre films?
Definitely. The thing I find about Zinzana is that it’s interesting to watch regardless. The goal when making the film was to grab the audience within the first ten minutes and then drag them throughout the whole film. It’s something new and different but not to a point that you can’t relate to it. There are characters that are human and it’s a universal theme so I think people will love it here and I hope it do. Of course, from the trailer some audiences might back off because it’s not their genre but I can guarantee that if you go into Zinzana your 35 dirhams are well spent. Obviously you can’t predict the future but that’s what I hope.
I personally believe that the future of UAE cinema lies in the kind of film that Zinzana is. Smaller, genre films that can travel abroad and can exit alongside the artistic dramas that the industry here already produce. Do you think the future of Emirati cinema has genre as an element?
Definitely, I think the movement has begun with what Zinzana is doing. But I’m even more excited on Ali Mostafa’s next film The Worthy. When you watch his next film, you’ll be knocking your head on the wall. I’m floored in what I’ve seen from it. Ali is a genre man without even knowing he was a genre man. So there’s Zinzana, The Worthy and another film going into production soon. What we’re trying to do right now is we are trying to figure out the market. There’s no real answer to it – only predictions. It’s great that we travel abroad but films travelling abroad alone won’t grow our industry. We need to make things that the local audience will believe in and go and watch because that’s the future.
I definitely agree. So what’s next for you? I read that you’d be interested in making a horror film which as a horror filmmaker really makes me happy. Do you have anything planned or is it too early to tell?
I think it’s too early to tell. Once we find the script and find the story, then we will know. I’m a fan of horror but I’m a bigger fan of psychological horror. I love auteur films so if you ask me my style of horror it would be more like ‘It Follows’ or ‘The Witch’. Those are the kind of films that I consider good horror. So if I find the right script or have the right idea, that will decide it. You have to believe something before you do it so let’s see what happens because currently I’ve been so focused on Zinzana.
Finally, Zinzana releases this weekend. Any expectations or thoughts about the weekend? I’m sure you’re anxious.
An interesting tip that many people don’t know is that the version of the film that will play at Dubai International Film Festival and release in cinemas here is actually different from the ones international audiences have seen, because we recomposed the whole music with a great new composer named Jerry Lane who composed for Theeb. There’s a bit of Giallo in it and more culture to it and I’m interested to see how that plays out. It could play as an entirely different film.
Yeah, I mean I hope people watch it. With Emirati films, it’s not like we are going to make our money back. Every Emirati film is mostly about attracting an audience and raising the awareness of Emirati cinema. There’s a great campaign that Imagenation Abu Dhabi is launching in collaboration with people like Dubai International Film Festival and twofour54 called #SupportArabCinema. We need the audience to support us because without them, we will be extinct before they know us. We need to grow that audience and have them believe that Arab films can be as kick-ass as American or Asian films or any other film. And the one thing I love about Asian cinema is that their budgets are similar to ours but they grew their audience over time and you can see their industry booming and becoming a giant. They started small and slowly built that up by producing small-budget quality films like Lady Vengeance and films that people just loved. Imagenation as a studio is really supporting Arab cinema and they have a great management that is really contributing to consistently making feature films in this region. So what we aim to do here is similar by turning what is a film movement into a film industry. It’s exciting times and we can hope for the best.
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Zinzana will have its Middle East Premiere at Dubai International Film Festival on Thursday, December 10th at Madinat Arena. You can buy your tickets here. The film also releases nationwide through VOX Cinemas the same weekend, so I urge everyone to go out and support quality genre content made locally so we can see more of them.