The World Premiere of “Bilal” (UAE; 2015) took place at Doha’s Ajyal Youth Film Festival. This new animated feature film, directed by Ayman Jamal and Khurram Alav, is for families and the rating is expected to be PG-13.
Families in Qatar enjoy going out together as is obvious as one walks around looking at the people: fathers pushing strollers, mothers with the little brothers and sisters, all enjoying the many types events at the youth festival, stopping by stands for ice cream or pizza, going to museums, the peaceful enjoyment of weekends.
The press screening was itself very interesting, attended mostly by Arab men of the press from all over the Middle East; and I could see they were very engrossed in this film … as was I who watched it with a very critical mind. The role of the mother and sister satisfied my need for inclusion. The mother enchanted me with her love, beauty and wisdom. I do wish the sister had more chance to show her depth of mind because it is obvious how important she is to the story and she played an important role throughout the story.
The story opens new vistas into the world and is universal at the same time. Its exoticism makes it special in the way of Aladdin or 1,001 Nights, or Sinbad, stories we all grew up with. While American audiences are used to exotic settings, especially in cartoons, one is reminded that this one is historically based. It is a great way to introduce the Middle East to children, as its story is a heroic battle of good against evil.
We spoke with co-directors Ayman Jamal and Khurram H. Alavi, the two young American actors Andre Robinson (“Despicable Me 2”) and Jacob Latimore (“The Maze Runner”) and the Finnish composer of the impressive score, Atil Örvarsson.
Featuring Adewale Akinnouye-Agbanje (“Game of Thrones”), this heroic epic animated film took four years to produce. It was financed via individual investors from Saudi Arabia, Dubai and with the support of the Doha Film Institute.
SydneysBuzz: How did you begin to make this large-scale movie?
Ayman Jamal: We wanted to make the historical epic uniquely telling the life story of Bilal from the age of 6 years old to 60 years old.
To begin the project, a research team, including a number of forensic scientists, worked for almost two years looking back into the past to provide critical information to help structure the characters featured in “Bilal” and to recreate and bring to life their tribal nature, their physical being, their behavior and attitudes and their appearance.
The film’s director Khurram H. Alavi from Pakistan combined his scriptwriting and directing abilities and his background as a digital sculptor and character artist to create the unique nature of the characters in the film which were created from scratch with conceptual designs as the first step.
Khurram H. Alavi: The style of the characters is very different from other animated movies. We didn’t want the characters to be cartoonish but also not too realistic either. It involved creative talents from 22 countries working in Dubai.
The beautifully rendered animation is uniquely suited to telling this story of an African boy who, 1,400 years ago, dreams of becoming a great warrior. His dream becomes a nightmare when men on horseback invade his village, kill his mother and abduct him and his sister and sell them into slavery in a land far away from home. Thrown into a world where greed and injustice rule all, Bilal finds the courage to raise his voice and make a change.
Inspired by true events, this is a story of a real hero’s journey toward self-discovery from age 6 to 60, one who has earned his place in time and history. Its archetypical story is much like that of Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery but who, with his innate intelligence, rose to the top of the master’s household — along with a touch of Abraham who broke the idols of his time as the concept of One God broke into his consciousness of the world around him.
Bilal’s next adventure is finding its international legs. With proper strategic marketing, sales and distribution, (and perhaps a little trimming as 105 minutes feels a little long) this film should be lucrative. The film deserves be seen and acclaimed by worldwide audiences including in the U.S. I myself would have enjoyed seeing this film with my father, mother and sister when we went to movies together, one of the happiest memories of my childhood.
Its appeal to all families, including, but by no means limited, to African-American families who lacking an onscreen hero at this point in time, should also be key to its success. We all know their per capita moviegoing habits are high which makes them one of the best markets to target whenever possible.
Ayman Jamal and Khurram Alavi were encouraged by Will Smith whose interest in universal storytelling as it relates to the African diaspora is very strong.
SydneysBuzz: Tell me more about the participation of Will Smith.
Ayman Jamal: Two years ago, Will Smith visited us in Dubai and we talked about casting for “Bilal”, and he was a great help in giving us direction. We were looking for someone who had an African-American accent, and who could give an authentic feel.
Khurram H. Alavi: We had hundreds of people audition, but we were really lucky to get these outstanding actors.
SydneysBuzz: Were the looks of the characters based on the actors?
Jacob Latimore: You know what? When I saw the pictures, I thought: “Are you picking me because I look like him?” And when I posted the pictures to Instagram, all my fans were like: “You’re a cartoon character!” But it wasn’t intentional – just movie magic!
Jamal: The character of Bilal is based on a real historical figure, and we had a whole team researching what he looked and sounded like. It was done in a very scientific way.
SydneysBuzz : Atil, how did you go about composing the score?
Atil Ö rvarsson: Geography played a big part in creating the music for the film.
The music needed to get into the characteristics of the region and had to combine the archaelogical, historical nature of the story and make it accessible for an international audience. We used old instruments from the region and combined it with modern electronically synthesized music.
SydneysBuzz: Does each character have a theme?
We created themes for some of the characters and created a unique, other worldly sound for the witch doctor.
SydneysBuzz: What’s it like to premiere your film at a film festival for young people?
Latimore: It’s so unique that the youth judge and pick the winners here. It’s so important that they have a platform and a voice – they’re the future tastemakers. And anything they like, the world likes. It’s also my first time out of the U.S., so I’m super excited.
Jamal: It’s the best celebration for us. It’s a big thing for the region – a full-length feature film that was produced here and will be distributed worldwide. This has never been done before.
After playing Dubai, it will go to the Berlin Film Festival where we hope to be able to announce some territorial distribution deals.
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