Interviews

A comedy of errors: Inside look at Image Nation’s film Rashid & Rajab

Image Nation's latest production, Emirati body-swapping film Rashid & Rajab, has attracted international attention with a sales agent secured at Cannes. The film’s producers share their experience with Rachel Dawson.

 

At its core, Rashid & Rajab is a film about parallels, not just of characters, but of cultures too.

While humour might be a sign of wit and intelligence, making a slapstick comedy involves ticking the right production boxes to ensure viewers are left with splitting sides, say the producers of Emirati comedy Rashid & Rajab, released in UAE cinemas this Eid al-Fitr.

It is the first live-action feature film from Emirati director Mohammed Saeed Harib, best known as the creator of animated TV series Freej. The film was produced by Emirati filmmakers Ali Mostafa (The Worthy, From A To B) and Majid Alansari (Zinzana), alongside Breakout Film’s Rami Yasin (Shabab Sheyab).

The family-friendly comedy follows wealthy Emirati executive Rashid (Marwan Abdullah Saleh) and carefree Egyptian fast-food deliveryman Rajab (Shadi Alfons), who switch bodies after a freak accident on the way to work. As they desperately look for a way to revert to their former selves, the unlikely pair gain a different perspective into each other’s lives.

Speaking on the film’s translation from paper to screen, director-producer Rami Yasin said: “Working on this feature has been extremely interesting for several reasons. The first being that we’ve worked on the script for a long time; also the nature of the film and its storyline, which sees the coming together of different cultures; finally, working alongside Mohammed Saeed Harib, who is an extremely accomplished creative mind and storyteller but had only worked in animation before.”

The scriptwriting process lasted approximately two years, says Yasin. Despite the long incubation period, he says: “We all feel extremely proud of the film and the work that’s been done. It was amazing to see how Harib specifically translated his animation style and mood into a live-action feature film. I think people who know his work will see Mohammed Saeed Harib all over the film, even though it’s live action.”

The team of co-producers explain that without their creative collaboration with Harib, the film wouldn’t have been half as fulfilling. Yasin adds that their goal was to enable Harib to “translate the beautiful world he creates in his mind into live action with live performances”.

Mostafa was given Esquire Magazine’s Man at His Best award in 2014, for his contributions to the development of the Emirati film industry.

“This film has been through various stages. I was aware of the project being in the pipeline for years, but it has changed concept over time. So when the concept of Rashid & Rajab came about and I was asked to be onboard as a producer, I immediately said yes,” explains Mostafa, who is director, writer and producer.

He admits that on day one of filming, he observed everything going on and questioned the approach. “Unfortunately for me, I’m more a director than I am a producer. When I read the script for Rashid & Rajab, naturally, I envisioned the look and feel of the film very differently.

“At the end of day one, I understood that I was not familiar with seeing a bunch of layers of comedy happening, instead of just one. That day I got home and realised that the film offers the viewers comedy with a bunch of high production values. After that, I took off that director’s hat, burned it and threw it away. I put on my producer’s hat to make sure to do whatever it takes to ensure everything Harib envisioned was reflected on the screen.”

Rashid & Rajab is not the first project the three producers have worked on together. They previously collaborated on films such as From A to B, Sea Shadows, Zinzana and The Worthy.

Yasin says: “Since we’ve worked together before, we know our styles and strengths, and that’s why it’s very easy for us to work together. We don’t necessarily need to discuss and lay lines to separate ourselves, and yet we manage to do the same thing, each in our own forte. For us it’s simple – we’re all multi-taskers, we wear different hats, and we help each other with movies. So each of us naturally fell into place, collectively giving Harib the support he required.”

Mostafa adds: “I feel it would have been a tough set had we not had that personal background of working together.”

“There would have been a lot of blood and killing involved had we not known each other,” Alansari jokes.

While this is the first full-fledged comedy the three have worked on together, they enjoy dabbling in other genres. They credit Image Nation for all its support and umpteen opportunities to explore a diverse trajectory of films.

“Over the past three to four years, we’ve worked on From A to B, which is a dramedy, then Zinzana, which is a psychological thriller. Next we went on to work on The Worthy, the first Arabic-language post-apocalyptic film, and suddenly we landed Rashid & Rajab, which is 100% comedy, all thanks to Image Nation,” notes Yasin.

Despite this being the team’s first body-switch comedy, the concept is not entirely new. We asked the producers to share their thoughts on comparisons with Hollywood body-switches.

Variety called Alansari’s film Zinzana “a world-class neo-noir thriller” and named him Arab Filmmaker of the Year at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival.

“I feel like even though the body-switch concept might be tried and tested a thousand times before, our film puts a spotlight on Emirati culture, and this is what makes it stand apart. This film is unique not because of the body-switch concept, but because of the characters,” Alansari explains.

Shot across old and new Dubai, the film covers the entire city, from Downtown Dubai and Karama all the way to the Green Planet, Sheikh Zayed Road and more. “Dubai itself as a city is a character in the film,” says Yasin.

The shoot lasted 36 days. “This has been one of our longest shoots, and it’s probably not apparent in the film, but our days were chock-a-block. There wasn’t a single day where we finished before our twelve-hour mark, because there were a lot of shots and a lot of set-ups. As I mentioned before, having a good team around enabled us to achieve a lot,” Yasin explains.

The medium-budget film had single- and multi-camera days, depending on the sets needed. It also shot on ARRI cameras and used special heavy equipment, such as cranes, for specific scenes says, Yasin.

Yasin’s short, In Overtime, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. He is currently working on his feature directorial debut, A Dog’s Tail.

While Yasin took care of the physical side of production, ensuring the crew followed routines and everything was done according to the vision of Harib, Mostafa oversaw various production aspects that dealt with the technical aspect of live-action shots. Alansari was involved in the development, delivery and post-production aspects.

Since music is a critical element of the comedy, Alansari says Harib ensured they got British composer Jerry Lane and the London Contemporary Orchestra to record approximately 80% of the high-energy musical pieces. He adds that Harib was extremely particular about the score.

Rashid & Rajab was acquired by international sales agent AGC International at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May, and as a result, will be distributed globally. What do the producers hope international audiences take away from the film?

Mostafa says: “That we’re light-hearted and we can laugh at ourselves.”

Alansari adds: “It’s about showcasing our culture to the world.”

The cast and crew of Rashid & Rajab at the film premiere
in May at the Rhodes Lounge, Mall of the Emirates.

Yasin observes: “How can you do comedy if you can’t laugh at yourself too?

“This film is almost like taking the mask off and saying this is who we really are, and these are the challenges in our lives. There’s an assumption that Arabs and Emiratis are all rich – but at the start of the film, you see a character who is bankrupt.

“International audiences are used to Arab cinema that comes out of festivals – the festival darlings, as we call them.

“With Rashid & Rajab, we’re trying to carve out a new generation of movies that attract regular customers to cinemas so that we can grow our industry. Our hope is that just like audiences in the region, audiences elsewhere can experience a body-switch comedy, shot in Dubai, in the Arabic language.”