10 Jun 2019 AT 09:19 AM

Exclusive interview: Director Mohammed Saeed Harib

Just how has an Emirati director made the leap from TV cartoons to real people on the big screens?
10 Jun 2019 AT 09:19 AM

Let’s start off with a bit of role play shall we? You be the prospective production company guru looking to hire an experienced, up-and-coming director. You need a safe pair of hands to shoot your film, Rashid & Rajab, a classic body switch comedy that’s set to hit the cinemas at one of the busiest, and most lucrative, times of the year.

Mohammed Saeed Harib, an Emirati director best-known for creating animated kids’ TV series FREEJ, walks into the interview room.
He is himself.

(We’re just here to stitch it all together after all). Let’s go.

Formalities are done, you’re both settled. You’re a nice guy, you ask nice guy questions.

“What experience do you have that makes your right for this project, Mr Harib?” you ask, with your nice guy smile to finish.

“Well, I’m a TV animator so I’ve never directed a feature film. And, I’ve never worked with real actors,” he beams. Uh oh, there goes your right eyebrow twitch.

He goes on: “Instead, I’m used to a small team, working slowly, finessing details, sitting in nice meeting rooms, sketching things out. Not 5am wake-up calls to join the mad circus of a film set. A crazy tribe of people staring at you expecting instructions.”

Brow still tremoring, you go on: “Okay, well what are your favourite body switch films? Freaky Friday? Big? Maybe a bit of ’90s sci-fi action, Face-Off?”

“None. I have never seen a body switch film,” he beams again.

And there it is, a full judgmental eyebrow arch appears on your face.

Perhaps his decisiveness as a director can settle the nerves?

Perhaps not.

Before you get the chance to inquire, he adds: “If people ask me: ‘How do you see it looking?’ I might reply: ‘I don’t know, how do you see it looking?’ They might say: ‘Well you’re the director,” and I might go: ‘Hmm, yes maybe I see it like this?’”

Goodbye nice guy smile, hello shocked and surprised eyebrows (with both now raised to the rafters).

“Okay, well thanks for coming in and we’ll let you know.”

It’s not the sort of credentials that can fill a production company with warm, fuzzy feelings of confidence. But, then again, Image Nation is not a conventional production company. The Abu Dhabi-based group has a broad repertoire of films, ranging from action comedy with Keeping Up with the Joneses to horror with Rings, family sci-fi with Men in Black 3 to thriller with Contagion. The company has tasted Oscar success twice, first with period drama The Help in 2012 and most recently with the truly compelling Free Solo, which landed the Best Documentary title at this year’s Academy Awards.

Now, the bosses are putting their trust in the raw, and immensely talented, hands of Harib. And, we’re expecting huge things.

Our meeting with Harib takes place in his beautiful animation studios in Alserkal Avenue, the beating heart of Dubai’s art scene. Every corner, every desk, every wall is splashed with vibrant colours and characters from his hit series FREEJ. There’s even a huge framed Mona Lisa – only the wry smile has been replaced (or shall we say, “switched”) with the masked face of one of the cartoon show’s characters. The short animated TV hit follows the lives of four old Emirati women adapting to Dubai as it grows into a global superpower (soaring skyscrapers included). It first aired in 2006 and became an instant success, with some branding it the Arab version of US phenomenon The Simpsons. High praise indeed. This year saw it cross the continent to air in Japan, becoming another ground-breaking UAE success in the process as the first-ever Arabic show to be exported to the Asian nation.

So, why make the switch from TV animation directly to live action feature films?

The answer is Image Nation, and the belief it, as a prospective production company, had in Harib to direct new family comedy
Rashid & Rajab.

“The main reason I signed up to this project is because I knew it was with them, otherwise I wouldn’t even bother,” he reveals. “I also had a fear of live action camera set ups. I know a lot when it comes to animation, but what do I know about a camera? With animation, the process is much slower, it is finessed, we sit in nice meeting rooms, we do our sketches and storyboards…

“That’s why Image Nation wanted me, because I have a very raw talent when it comes to live action – I’ve never done it before.”

The film, which is out across the UAE in time for Eid al-Fitr, tells the story of wealthy Emirati executive Rashid (Marwan Abdullah Saleh) and carefree Egyptian fast-food deliveryman Rajab (Shadi Alfons). The pair switch bodies after a freak accident. You know how the plot goes… The initial shock, the poor guy finally has the treasures he’s dreamed of, the rich bloke sees how lucky he’s actually had it these years. They desperately search for a way to reverse it, but not before both learn valuable life lessons. “Be careful what you wish for,” warns Harib.

So, should he heed his own advice ahead of making the big switch from animation to real life, and from TV to cinema?

“Well, to make sure I didn’t derail and waste Image Nation’s money, they put three amazing directors with me to make sure I got the best experience directing this film,” he goes on. “It worked in my favour as I’m someone who loves to collaborate, I have a vision but it’s about collaboration rather than: ‘This is how I see it.’

“They demand a certain quality and success for their projects, and they demand a lot from you to make sure their standards are upheld.

“However, it was a huge challenge – the first five days I was like…” he clutches the arms of his chair, widening his eyes in fear.

“People just stare at you,” he laughs. “Sixty people asking you: ‘What do you think of the nails? What do you think of the wardrobe? How is the lighting? You said something two months ago about this starting on a wide and going to medium…?’

“Yes, it took me about five days but then I transitioned.”

Not that the transition is likely to stay permanent. While the Avengers final chapter continues to smash records as the biggest film franchise in history, Harib is content with focusing on TV. He cites the conclusion of Game of Thrones, which is itself breaking records as the biggest TV show in history, as reflecting the shift towards greater respect for all directors.

“People would say: ‘So, now that you’ve done Freej, when are you going to do a feature film?’” he adds. “You know, people speak like films are an upgrade, but they’re not. They’re a media platform, just like TV.

“There is a certain magic to films. People can walk round and say: ‘Oh, I’m a film director.’ But with Netflix, everything is flipping on its head. A director is a director, a show is a show, a film is a film.”

Rashid & Rajab is a homegrown project filmed across Dubai, and, with a body switch storyline, there is an inevitable message audiences will take home from watching the characters see the world through each other’s eyes.

Harib’s take on it? Note the message, but, overall, just enjoy it.

“I want people to have a good time, support Emirati films and filmmakers,” he insists. “We have a lot of voices and there are plenty of people who think of us as quite mysterious or that asking about our culture is quite taboo.

“But more and more, things are opening up and people are asking and exploring, asking questions like: ‘What is it like to be you?’ So I want to make films and share stories about what it’s like to be us – we’re ambitious, innovative and driven.

“I believe in creating entertainment for the sake of creating entertainment. With Arabic shows, people can be very idealistic and go: ‘What’s the message of this…?’ I say: ‘There is no message, did you laugh? Yes? Good, you are entertained. That is the purpose of it.’

“The last thing I want to do is step out of my world and my problems, go to the cinema, pay my money and then see someone else’s problems and feel bad.

“Watch the film, have a laugh, don’t take it seriously, take it for what it is and move on. As long as we entertain you, we’re happy.”

The film’s score was recorded by the London Contemporary Orchestra at the world-famous Angel Studios. The London digs are where the soundtrack to Oscar winners such as The English Patient, Moulin Rouge! and The Lion King were recorded, as well as The Full Monty and TV period drama Downton Abbey.

There’s been no shying away or cutting corners by Image Nation – it’s invested heavily and is using this opportunity to share UAE life with the rest of the world.

Hana Kazim, manager of local film and television at Abu Dhabi, adds: “Through our unique slate of projects, Image Nation offers an authentic perspective of the UAE to the rest of the world – telling the nation’s stories and representing its diverse culture – and Rashid & Rajab is a shining example of this.

“We always aim to foster local talent and offer unique platforms for Emirati filmmakers to tell their stories. Seeing Harib’s remarkable creative abilities translate to the big screen has been inspiring and we can’t wait for audiences to see this hysterical film.”

There’s that high praise again. Justified as it turns out, as the movie has been picked up by AGC International, part of Hollywood’s AGC Studios. It means the film will be shown around the world. Maybe Harib will change his mind about directing more feature films after all. Either way, he’s made the big switch look easy.

Rashib & Rajab is out on Eid al-Fitr (expected June 4)