Mention Madagascar, and for many of us, the first thing that comes to mind is Alex the lion, Marty the zebra and their merry friends in the animation trilogy of the same name. “Yes, those characters do remind me of my home country,’’ admits Goulam-Raza Amarsy, chief executive officer of Dubai’s Meydan Imax (an abbreviation of image maximum). “And to me, they are more than fictional, because I’ve seen some amazing species of animals while growing up in Madagascar.’’
Perhaps that’s why, as executive producer of Imax films, he focused the camera on nature, capturing wild beasts in some of the most iconic documentaries ever made in this format. The 57-year-old puts his big vision for filmmaking and Imax in general down to growing up in his exotic homeland, “because it gave me the chance to dream big.
“When you are on one of the largest islands in the world, pretty much cut off from the rest of the world, you begin to dream and think beyond,” he says. And that “beyond” didn’t only extend to plains and oceans packed with wildlife and creatures he could film, but also a love of space. “I remember being glued to the television watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon,’’ he says, explaining that he always had a passion for adventure and a sense of restless curiosity. “I wanted to learn more about almost everything I saw,’’ he says.
So after completing his schooling in Madagascar, he moved to Paris for higher studies in banking, before studying a degree in marketing from Harvard and moving to Canada, where he worked in a bank. But after a couple of years, he decided to move into construction, building shopping malls in the US and Canada.
He first realised there that entertainment was at the heart of nearly everything we do. “My friend Pietro Serapiglia, a well-respected film director, introduced me to Imax film production.” It was a startling introduction as he saw first-hand how Imax can record and display images of far greater size and resolution than conventional film, because it uses a much larger film frame. “I loved the challenge and the chance to learn something new, and decided that I wanted get into film and documentary production,’’ says Goulam.
He was soon producing Imax films, making an impact with his very first one, a 1997 documentary called Super Speedway. The film followed one man’s quest to get his new car up to speed and another’s goal of rebuilding an old 1964 roadster. It was a huge success, and he went on to produce many award-winning documentaries.
Now, as a partner of the Meydan Imax, he plans to introduce the Imax culture to the UAE, by screening educational films on space, technology and wildlife for students, as well as Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters and live telecasts of special events like the Metropolitan Opera from New York. “We want the people of Dubai to have a rich and diverse movie experience,” he says. Goulam shares with Friday his love for films, and his dreams for entertainment in the region.
I was introduced to the world of Imax in the early Nineties by my friend Pietro Serapiglia, who was already an established film director. A banker by profession, I worked in a few banks in Canada, before deciding to move into the construction of shopping malls in the US and Canada in the Eighties. I found that people visited malls not just for shopping, but also to have an entertaining experience.
In 1993, I was working on the construction of an Imax theatre in the White River State Park in Indianapolis, US, when some of my friends came up with the idea of making an Imax film on car racing based on legendary car drivers Michael and Mario Andretti. Eager to take up a challenge, I joined them as executive producer.
My background in banking and finance and my MBA came in handy because, as an executive producer, I was responsible for balancing the books, budgeting and managing the logistics. We worked out the finances and found that it would cost us $5.4 million (Dh19.8 million) to make a 40-minute film. It took me almost three years to raise the funds.
In the process, I also set up my production company, Primesco, and produced my first Imax film, Super Speedway, which was released in 1997. The film was narrated by Hollywood star, Paul Newman, directed by renowned Imax director Stephen Low and my friend Pietro was the producer. Producing the film was exciting, as I was involved in almost all areas of it.
We had a camera the size of a small fridge on top of a car, and we drove at speeds of 200 miles per hour to keep up with the car racers. By the time we finished Super Speedway, I’d had enough of being in race cars. But I was addicted to Imax films, and went on to produce four more films in quick succession. I especially enjoyed working on location for my films.
For example, Wildfire (1999), a film about the wildfires that break out in the wilderness and the battle to control them, gives breathtaking views of the outdoors, from Idaho and California to Australia. In the same year as Wildfire, we also released Wolves, a documentary shot in conjunction with the National Wildlife Federation about the reintroduction of the animals into the wild.
We shot in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Alaska and Quebec, giving the audience a chance to watch intimate and rarely seen footage of one of North America’s greatest predators, Canis lupus, better known as the grey wolf. I also produced a documentary called Bears in 2001, one on lost civilisations, entitled Lost Worlds, and one on the Bengal tiger, India: Kingdom of the Tiger, which was inspired by the writings and experiences of the great wildlife explorer Jim Corbett.
I first came to Dubai in 2003 on a business trip and fell in love with the place. I had some commitments, as I was setting up an Imax facility in India, but I couldn’t stop thinking of Dubai – it really represented who I was. I have a friend here of Portuguese descent who grew up in Brazil, studied in New York and married a Japanese girl.
He is just one of the many people I know living here who is a citizen of the world. Dubai represents that spirit. I feel very comfortable here, surrounded by sea and the dhows, it reminds me of Madagascar. I flew here in 2006, set up home and decided to partner with Meydan to set up the Imax facility here.
I was born in Madagascar, which was then a French colony, and spent my entire childhood there. My grandfather, Amarsy Ismael, came to Madagascar from Gujarat, India, in 1896, at the age of 16, in search of a better life. He settled in Madagascar, as he saw great business potential trading in locally grown produce. So adventure and the sea are very much part of my DNA.
I have been blessed with a vivid imagination. One of the memories of my younger days that still remains in my mind is watching the moon landing on TV in 1969. The fact that NASA had a satellite tracking facility in Madagascar whetted my appetite for exploration. What I remember of my childhood are large green spaces, a vast sea and an azure blue sky.
Madagascar has an incredibly rich, beautiful rainforest and a fragile ecosystem. I just fell in love with nature and natural things. As kids, we spent a long time running in the open, exploring the greens, shinning up trees and swimming in the sea. My love for nature combined with my love for education, became the precursor to my getting into production of educational films based on conservation and nature’s predators.
By the beginning of the Seventies, we moved to France and settled in Paris, where my brothers, sister and I went to school and college. I completed my secondary school education in Madagascar, and went on to do my further studies at Ecole Préparatoire at Lycée du Parc, Lyon, France. After I graduated from Ecole des Hautes Études Commerciales, Paris, France, I was looking for more challenges, so I moved to Montreal in 1976, where I worked as a banker for Nova Scotia Bank for three years.
I met my wife Afsana in Paris in 1978 and we married in 1979. She is also from Madagascar, and she moved to the UK as a student before being transferred to a Paris University. After getting married, we studied together at Harvard, completing our MBA degrees there. She is the pillar of our family structure.
We have three children; our son Ali, 27, works at Leo Burnett, Dubai; our daughter, Fereshteh, is the manager of educational projects at Meydan Imax; and our other daughter, Priya, is a fashion designer who lives in Paris with her grandparents. My idea of having fun is taking a swim with my wife, doing my charity work and walking on the streets of Paris.
One of the most passionate dreams I have is to create the I-lab – a place where young people can congregate, share ideas and innovate. Here, entrepreneurship and creativity will merge, and new ideas could be worked on in tandem with big institutions worldwide. I hope to find a like-minded corporate sponsor for Meydan I-Lab.
I want to produce an IMAX film on Dubai and how it is set to become the metropolis of the future – this is in the planning stage. I intend to invite schools and colleges for screenings of educational films. I’m working with 380 schools and the Ministry of Education. We already have some exciting shows planned, such 3D films on sharks, the Arctic and the Hubble Space Telescope. We also plan to screen the Turkish film Fatih, based on the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
I want to focus on history, science, ecology, education and entertainment. The visual medium can be a very powerful educational tool and it makes learning fun.