Throughout his illustrious career, producer Tarak Ben Ammar has been a passionate advocate for filmmaking in the Middle East. With his latest, Black Gold, he hopes to bring even more attention to the talent of the region.
There can be no doubting Tarak Ben Ammar’s boldness. The Tunisia-born producer put his country on the filmmaking map when he convinced the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shoot Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark there. He went on to produce works for Franco Zeffirelli (La Traviata) and Roman Polanski (Pirates), before famously forging a relationship with Michael Jackson, bringing the superstar’s HIStory tour to fruition. More recently, he scored a huge success distributing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in 15 territories. With Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Black Gold, he returns to producing on a grand scale. At $55m, this tale of a young Arab prince and the 1930s oil boom, starring Antonio Banderas and Tahar Rahim, is one of the most expensive films ever made on an Arab subject. On the eve of the film’s world premiere at the Doha Film Festival, movieScope spoke to Ammar about his latest adventure.
What led to Black Gold shooting in Qatar?
I had come on a tourism visit to Doha, invited by the princess who founded the Doha Film Festival, Sheikha Al Mayassa, the emir’s daughter. And she said, ‘If you ever have a story that could take place in Qatar about Arab culture, you’d be welcome.’ And that’s what happened. I sent Jean-Jacques Annaud [to Doha], in the summer of 2009, in the dead of August—52 degrees! And he came and went to the location by the sea, because we needed sand dunes that arrived into the sea, for a specific scene in the film. And that’s what led to coming here.
Black Gold is the most perfect film possible as the curtain-raiser at the 2011 Doha Film Festival. How did that come about?
Well, the Doha Film Institute wanted to be a partner… And they became a partner, because we were shooting here. And it was a natural thing, because we were shooting, that we could have it ready in time for the world premiere. It’s a story about Arabs. It’s produced by an Arab producer. It has a famous international director. It has Warner Brothers. It has Universal. It has all these international ingredients for distribution. But we thought it would be fair that it be presented here before it comes out in the rest of the world.
Why did you want Jean-Jacques Annaud?
He was the right man to adapt this novel [The Great Thirst], the way he did it. The novel, which was written in the fifties…It’s as if it was written in Arabic. The author, Hans Ruesch, was fascinated by the Arab world, and did extensive research. And that’s why Jean-Jacques was the right man, because when you take The Lover and The Name of the Rose to the screen, and respect the author and at the same time make it so grand and so accessible to world audiences… He was the right man to respect the Arab soul, the Arab tradition, the Arab sensitivity, which is not easy. And he does his homework. The truth is, he’s prepared this movie for two years. He’s read everything you can imagine. He wanted to know the Qur’an. The preparation on a movie like this is extensive.
Surely, though, it’s impossible to make a desert-set movie without Lawrence of Arabia weighing down on the film?
That’s like saying John Huston and the great John Ford… They made some incredible westerns, but did that frighten Sergio Leone to make his westerns? The great films about American history… Did that frighten Sergio Leone to make Once Upon a Time in America? No. Sure, we have that reference, and that challenge is great. Lawrence of Arabia is the story of an Englishman that falls in love with the Arab world. This is the story of a young prince and his point of view. This is why I felt he [Annaud] was the right man to tell that story, and we were not afraid of that comparison. Plus, how many audiences today have seen Lawrence of Arabia? Though they should have! That was one of the reasons I bought the book.
It feels like this story belongs not just to Qatar, but many of the Arab countries…
You are so right. This film does not represent any single country. But it’s probably a bit of every one of these, whether Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar. Every one of the Arabs who have seen this has said, ‘Ah, my great-grandfather could have been that.’ That was why the book inspired us, because it was really the birth of these nations.
Do you feel it’s your duty to tell such local stories?
As Arabs and media professionals based in the Arab world, we all have a duty, some might even say a moral obligation, to get our stories and points of view out to the world through films and TV programmes. In an age when we see Islamophobia actually rising, we have a responsibility to provide a counterbalance, a different point of view. I hope in 10 years there will be half Arab movies in the [local] multiplexes, and half western movies. If not, we really have a problem.
The casting is very interesting, with actors from England, Spain, France and India, all playing Arabs. Were you worried this might not work?
If you look at how it really works, first of all Tahar [Rahim] is Algerian-French, so he’s really an Arab. If you listen to Antonio [Banderas], he tells you he’s from Andalucía, but he’s from Malaga—and, we, the Arabs, conquered it for seven centuries, so he must be a little bit Arabic. He says that, in all his interviews. Mark Strong is Italian. He’s English but his father and mother are Italian. We have Asia with Freida [Pinto]. All the other actors are Turkish, Pakistani, Syrian, Moroccan, Algerian, Egyptian… So it’s a real blend of authenticity with international appeal. But this is not a movie where stars carry the movie. It’s an ensemble. •
Black Gold opened in the UK on February 24, 2012
Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 26 (Jan/Feb 2012)