Dubai, August 2011

In an exclusive interview, Azza Aboul Magd talks to BroadcastPro Middle East about switching gears from advertising executive to executive producer on an independent Chinese production in the UAE.

You are in the middle of a cushy nine-to-five job as an advertising executive. The phone rings, you pick it up and the voice on the other end says: “Do you want give your career up for oyster mushrooms?” What next?

The advertising executive who was faced with the choice in her life chose the oyster mushrooms. No, this is not a movie script but there is a movie involved.

The film in question is a Chinese production titled A Fallible Girl, based on a true story but “spiced up” for dramatic purposes. It’s an art independent production about two Chinese women who run an indoor mushroom farm in Abu Dhabi. The film, which was funded by the China film foundation, was produced by Chinese production house Practice, which has a small base in Dubai Studio City (DSC).

The story follows the women and their exploits in Abu Dhabi as they explore life, deal with culture shock and build a business in the emirate. One is conservative, a bit on the ground and manages the farm while the other is out there looking for love, a laugh and a good night out.

This is the film that caused Azza Aboul Magd to switch career tracks from her job as an advertising agency producer to an independent executive producer (EP).

The job was initially offered to a friend of Magd’s who recommended the project. For Magd, the choice was between following a dream or sticking to a stable career.

“I started weighing between the full time job I’ve been doing for 18 years or pursuing my dream. I decided to follow my dream.”

In recent years, the UAE has emerged as a film hub for both independent and big budget productions owing to its varied locations, cheaper production facilities, availability of local crew and soft incentives that have been offered by local government-backed entities in different parts of the country.

Hollywood films such as Syriana and Mission Impossible as well as several Bollywood films have been shot in the region thus far. Emerging on the horizon is also Imagenation Abu Dhabi, which has emerged as a big player in several Hollywood as well as Emirati features.

While big budget features have easy access to the best talent and facilities in the country, Magd feels that smaller budget films always have limited options. This is the primary reason she landed the job.

“They wanted someone to handle the production from A to Z. They did not want to go to a production company because they could not afford their rates, so they employed me as an EP and I managed the entire project from a production point of view,” says Magd.

Filming began in January 2010 and ran for 47 days, 17 days longer than schedule due to unforeseen problems; replacement of the lead actress six days into filming was among them.

International crew and culture – No hot shorts please!

Apart from 20 international crew members, which included British director Conrad Clark, a Spanish Director of Photography (DoP) and a Chinese producer, Magd hired the rest of the crew locally.

“I hired forty crew members including production managers, coordinators and technical crew from Dubai. If we include the international crew, we had more than 60 people,” explains Magd.

Working with a diverse group and a crew not well acquainted with Arab culture, of course, brought its own challenges. Crew members including the cast belonged to more than 15 nationalities.

“I had this big pamphlet where I listed the dos and don’ts of Dubai and that included modest clothing and I had to keep reiterating it,” explains Magd.

Casting and wardrobe – I’ll buy your t-shirt for US $5

A significant number of the characters in the film were recruited by Magd. Casting was done along with Nasser Ahmed, the location manager who also runs a small casting agency called Advertising Effects.

In some cases, Magd says she recruited people from Sheikh Zayed Road and Mall of the Emirates for US $80 a day. Many were in front of the camera for the first time, explains the EP.

Like every feature, wardrobe was also an important element of the shoot and the DoP, in this case, wanted to have her say.

Says Magd: “The DoP was as important on the set as the director in this case. There were times when she would say, ‘No, I don’t like this shirt. It looks new. Find me another shirt. We walked up the street and found someone whose shirt fit the bill and offered to buy it off them for US $5. Some people were game so we’d take their shirt and give them the shirt that we had bought instead.”

The equipment was hired from Dubai-based rental house Filmquip.

The film was shot with a 16mm camera because that was “the style that the DoP was after”, according to Magd.

However the camera broke midway through the filming and it was halted for two days until a replacement ARRI was flown in from London by Filmquip.

A Fallible Girl was shot in 22 locations between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The first 10 days of the shoot took place at the mushroom farm in Abu Dhabi. Other locations included the creek, a villa in Jumeirah, an apartment in Deira and the streets of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Limited budget -Honing local skills

Magd claims she has helped train people in the industry with this project.

“I am very proud of the fact that I helped groom a lot of people in the industry. I firmly believe in training local talent.”

Many crew members were new to the industry or had limited experience because the budget did not permit hiring highly trained professionals.

The video assistant, for instance, had never worked on a film before A Fallible Girl but was trained on the job, according to Magd.

The production coordinators were not very seasoned either, and the location manager had only worked on television commercials before this film, she adds.

“I dislike people telling me that they can’t take someone on unless they have substantial experience. How do you get experience if no one gives you an opportunity? If no one trains anyone, how are we going to groom an industry in Dubai?” she points out.

As a first time EP, Magd feels passionately about having been given this opportunity. It was no bed of roses, however. She had to adapt to her new role as well.

“I was heading a TV department in an advertising agency so I wasn’t really on the field where as now I am on the field. I had to make sure that the crew and equipment was on set. I did the call sheets with the assistant director and brain storming with the key departments. I was even involved in catering simply because I had no production manager to do the leg work for me.”

Cannes on the horizon?

A Fallible Girl is expected to begin screening at various festivals at the end of this year.

Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), Abu Dhabi film festival and Tribecca Doha are among those being targeted in the region.

Magd feels that the film has much potential: “We are hoping to hit the big ones like Cannes and the Venice and the San Sebastian. The director that shot this movie won the best director in 2010 at San Sebastian film festival so we are hopeful that this film will also meet with the same success.”

Future projects – More movies and possible TV programmes

Magd’s efforts on A Fallible Girl have received her considerable recognition in the industry. In fact, so much recognition that several Emirati directors and a well-known local production house have now approached her to take on similar roles on their respective projects. In the meantime, Magd has also begun to write programmes that she hopes to pitch to television channels.

“I have written actually four or five programmes that I shall pitch to local broadcasters. If there is interest, I intend to take it further in a professional manner,” adds Magd.

It’s a wrap

Magd is optimistic that she made the right career move.

“I am excited about the future. Obviously being employed all these years there is a worry about where the next job will come from but filmmaking has its advantages when compared to the world of advertising.

“You don’t have to please the client. If the director is not happy, it’s just him. It’s not about the marketing manager, the marketing director and then the agency, client servicing and then your own management. In independent filmmaking, you also don’t take a shot 200 times, and pick two at the edit table. In the low budget industry, after the third take, I suppose you move on. You’re done.”

Interview by Vijaya Cherian. Written by Anuradha Mojumdar
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