Writer and editor

From banking to Black Gold

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

As the scorching summer drew to a close last year, the Doha Film Institute
(DFI) held an open audition. They were on the lookout for talented, aspiring actors to play two small roles in “Black Gold”. Mohammed al-Ibrahim, a young DFI staffer on the production team, was helping his colleagues with the search.

“I was working with DFI on the days we were doing the casting. I was the guy mixing up the actors,” said the 26- year-old Qatari. “The casting director said, ‘why don’t you give it a shot?’ I did, and I ended up getting the role.”

DFI co-produced “Black Gold” with Quinta Communications, the company created by veteran Tunisian film producer Tarak Ben Ammar. For al-Ibrahim, this was just the latest chapter of a meteoric rise in the film world. He also worked as a runner during the time “Black Gold” was filming scenes in Tunisia.

His example reflects that oft-repeated Doha mantra, to encourage its youth to recognise the value of working in the cultural field as it tries to build a strong art scene. Little over a year ago however, al-Ibrahim was working as a banker.

“I wish I had studied film, I actually studied criminal justice in the US. I wanted to work with convicts and those in rehab. When I came back to Qatar, I had lived in America for seven years,” he said. “I couldn’t really apply my knowledge from my degree, so I decided to get into banking.”

Never quite comfortable with the mundane path he had reluctantly chosen, al-Ibrahim spent much of his time reminiscing about the experiences that used to make him happy. “All along, even at university, I had a real interest for film and the energy it takes to make a film. When I was at the University of Central Florida – which has a notable film department— I helped my friends and offered my assistance for free. I just wanted to learn what was going on. I fell in love with cinema.”

As DFI ramped up its hiring strategy, al-Ibrahim jumped at the chance to follow his dream and was recruited as an assistant in the education department. After a series of promotions, he’s now a producer.

“I feel really lucky to have been given a chance like this. I try not to let it go to my head and not take it for granted,” al-Ibrahim said. His debut acting experience has not yet sunk in.

“I was fortunate enough to get the role. I think it’s going to hit home when I watch the film opening night with Antonio Banderas.”

Ibrahim, who describes himself as “usually shy” plays the role of a prison guard. He has a line with Tahar Rahim, the lead French-Algerian actor most famous for acting in “Un Prophete”.

“After that line, the director Jean-Jacques Annaud called me and another actor to do two more scenes. He allowed us to improvise, he just asked me to say what came to my mind.”

While his performing skills were tested in the acting role, there was also plenty of drama when he worked on the production as a runner for five weeks.

Revolution had gripped Tunisia at the same time as filming, forcing the team to pack up early and hibernate in a hotel. A strict 5:00 pm curfew was imposed, as the streets were riddled with violence, looting and fear after the public managed to overthrow President Ben Ali.

“We were all in the same hotel, it was the safest one with military personnel guarding. There were around 90 of us in a decent-sized lobby. People were drinking, having a good time. There were also moments of sheer silence to remember those who had sacrificed themselves, the martyrs of the war that had inflicted pain and suffering,” he said, describing a scene that will stay with him forever. “I remember that time with a sense of hope. Even though it’s turbulent times now, it will come about so it’s better one day.”

Al-Ibrahim’s grip on reality is refreshing. As well as recognising that the revolution has some immediate negative consequences, he realises that “Black Gold”, while an impressive project, will not catapult Qatar as a filmmaking hot spot overnight.

“It’s going to take some time, and when it’s going to happen, I don’t know,” al-Ibrahim explains. “When people here ask me what I do, I tell them I work for DFI. They don’t comprehend that, whether it’s my friends or even my family. They don’t grasp what a film institute does.” People might better understand once they watch the feature film, which was partly shot in Qatar.

“Maybe when people learn it was shot in Qatar, they might actually recognise the parts of the desert when they watch it. It will give them a sense of pride,” said al-Ibrahim.

With Doha-style diplomacy, he adds that “anyone who is passionate about film can say we’ve created a foundation. Qatar is a place where you can create films. The future looks good.”

Published in Variety Arabia November 2011