BRIT actor Riz Ahmed will be somewhat of a regular on the big screen in the coming months.
The Arabian epic Black Gold, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud will see the actor burst back onto our screens later this month. Just weeks later he will team up with Michael Winterbottom (the two worked together on the award-winning 2006 docudrama ‘The Road to Guantanamo’) for Trishna, a modern re-working of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles, while a May release of singer Plan B’s directorial debut ILL Manors will round off a busy three months.
But first up is Black Gold – a big-budget, epic film about the birth of the Middle Eastern oil industry. Renowned Tunisian Producer Tarek Ben Ammar held onto the movie rights of Swiss writer Hans Ruesch’s novel ‘South of the Heart’ for over 30 years hoping one day he’d fulfill his dream of bringing the epic story to the big screen.
As an Arab himself, Ben Ammar saw that Ruesch’s tale had all the classic ingredients to make a film with global appeal that would also offer a positive portrayal of the Arab world and Islam.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, Ben Ammar finally brings the story to the big screen later this month, and with a cast including Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto and Riz himself, there’s huge excitement for a film billed as the Middle East’s biggest-ever production.
The Asian Today caught up with Riz to talk Black Gold…
Riz, tell us about Black Gold – what type of film can we expect?
I think it’s a really refreshing story in some ways. It will be a historical insight for people. It’s good to see a story about the Middle East being told from the point of view from the indigenous people of that region. I think we’ve had fantastic Arab epics in the past and some of those films are classic and they’ll always stay classic but I think it’s really interesting and really timely to have something where our main protagonists are actually Arabs and Muslims themselves.
One thing that really strikes you about Black Gold is the scale of the production. Would you say it’s the biggest film in terms of production that you’ve been part of to date?
It’s a huge production. Everything I’d done up to that point had been low-budget, UK independent kind of stuff. When I first found out about the project and that Jean-Jacques Annaud was directing it, I was actually quite scared because he does massive films like ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and ‘Enemy at the Gates’. He makes crazy, huge, epic kind of scarily big films. So it was all quite daunting but all really exciting and cool.
When I got to the set, I realized that a lot of the team were people that had worked with Jean-Jacques before a few times, that put me at ease because even though it was a big scale production, it was a tight family of people working together which was cool.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get involved in the film?
The audition process was really interesting.
When I first mean Jean-Jacques I was just struck by how articulate and insightful he was. He struck me as a real intellectual with a kind of sympathy for actors. He gave me a chance to do it a few different times and try a few different ways.
The audition went well in London and then he called me to Paris for a screen test. When I arrived I realized the scale of the film that this potentially would be. We were in this massive studio with 50 ft walls painted green-screen and there were horses on one side. It was like we were going to get on horses for an audition for a screen test. On the other side they had built an old souk medina type of thing. Somewhere else there was a palace lounge in this massive studio space. I had to ask someone ‘this is still the audition right?’ and they were ‘yeah it’s the screen test’. I just couldn’t believe it. I was doing a rehearsal with Tahar Rahim and I’d just seen his film “Un Prophete” recently before the audition. So I just turned to him and went ‘Ajeeb habibi, Ajeeb’, which is a line from Un Prophete. He just burst out laughing and he couldn’t carry on the scene. I felt a bit bad but Jean-Jacques seemed to like it and he was like actually maybe there is a good energy between you guys.
You play the character of ‘Ali’ who is the main character Auda's half brother. Tell us a bit about him
My character Ali is quite different to the rest of the characters in the film because he’s western educated and he’s quite cynical and he doesn’t really feel like he belongs in the traditional conservative monarchy of his father King Amar. He’s quite critical of their ways and particularly the way that they obey a very narrow-minded religious authority, the Uluma. Because of that he’s almost like this Shakespearean fool in that he slightly sits outside of the inner-circle but when he’s let in it’s a chance for him to say what he thinks and to kind of undercut everything with his sarcasm. So he’s sometimes almost an outside eye on the other people in the film and their community and their values.
Much of the film is shot in stunning desert locations in Tunisia and Qatar. These scenes must have been tough
They were really tough but also pretty amazing. There was one scene in particular which we shot in Qatar by the coast. They have these sand dunes that go directly from the desert into the ocean. It’s just an amazing sight in itself. I’ll never forget that day when we charged down the top of the hill with about 50 camels and 200 guys down a sheer slope of a sand dune and just ran down right into the sea in all our clothes and our crazy prosthetic sunburn makeup. It’s a pretty beautiful kind of sight to see and even better to literally throw yourself into that kind of environment. It’s a lot different to London so I’ll remember that.
Producer Ben Ammar said he wanted a film which had a positive portrayal of the Arab world and Islam – do you think he’s achieved this in Black Gold?
Definitely. It’s a film where all the heroes are Arab and Muslims, the story is told from their point of view and it’s authentic. So hopefully the audience will agree with us
The film also stars Freida Pinto, who’s also your co-star in another forthcoming movie ‘Trishna’. Now I’d ask what it was like filming back to back projects with Frieda, but you didn’t actually meet on the sets of Black Gold did you?
That’s right. We didn’t have any scenes together on Black Gold
I can’t not mention Antonio Banderas – what was he like to work with?
I actually didn’t have any scenes with Antonio either!
Looking ahead you’ve got a busy few weeks coming up with the release of Black Gold and Trishna – what does the rest of 2012 hold for you? Equally as busy?
It’s going to be really busy year with those two films. I’ve also got Mira Nair’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, I’m in Plan B’s directorial debut and I’ve also got a new album coming out.
Finally Riz, why should we go and see Black Gold?
It’s unlike any other film you’ll see this year. It’s got huge action scenes, amazing landscape, romance and love as well as a lot of humour from my character. It’s a 21st century version of those classic, sweeping epics for the whole family.
Black Gold releases in cinemas 24 February 2012