Ahmed Al Mutawa, CEO and Founder of Alter Ego Productions, wants creators in the region to look forwards, not backwards, to innovate storytelling so that the Middle East can compete on a global scale.
Founded in 2012, Alter Ego has been involved in graphic design, video game development, and most recently, the Middle East’s first ever Anime, Torkaizer. Ahmed has just come back from Japan, he’s reticent to talk about the developments that were ongoing there, but he promises they’re exciting. “That was the third time I’ve been on business, but I must have been about seven times in total”.
Ahmed’s love for Japanese culture, especially Anime, is one of the first things to surface in our conversation. “I used to travel a lot and pick up Anime VHS tapes, especially from London. I watch them with my wife still. I’ve always watched it. Not to sound like a hipster, but I was watching it before it was cool [laughs].”
So how does a fan take the leap and start his own studio, not only paying homage to a passion, but innovating in new, exciting ways? “I started getting disappointed by the turn Anime was taking, newer shows have a lot more fan service [Wikipedia describes this as “gratuitous titillation”], and elements that were degrading to women. My wife doesn’t like it, I don’t like it – so I just thought, hey, why not create an Anime that I would want to watch – that my wife or other women wouldn’t find offensive?”
“Originally, I had an idea for a five-minute film. Then, five became ten. Ten became half-an-hour, and… well, I’m sure you writers know how it goes. By the time I was finished, it was a whole twenty-episode series.”
In pre-production since 2011, Torkaizer is Anime for a new generation. Following the story of a hero from the UAE as he travels to Japan, and then back to the UAE – fighting aliens with the assistance of gigantic robot suits the whole way, it is purportedly the first Arabic-language (i.e. not dubbed later) Anime ever, and the first to come out of the Middle East.
But that’s not all, characters will speak their own languages (including Japanese and English) with appropriate subtitles. Culture, and the perception of culture, is something that has informed Ahmed from the early in his life he tacitly admits that he doesn’t really fit into his own.
This frustration with Western culture, as well as the Arab world’s lack of creativity, led him to look East. “I wanted to apply the rules of Japanese Anime to push the creative industry forward. Put a Japanese work ethic into the Arab world.”
This wasn’t something many people back home could appreciate. He was berated for using contemporary Arabic, rather than classical, among other things.
“I got death threats. People would phone me and say ‘I know where you live’, they would tell me I’m a disgrace to the region because I wasn’t paying enough deference to the old ways.” Is this the price of being the first one, the pioneer of something new? “I guess so. Why does something need to be outdated to be Arabic?”
Perhaps most importantly, Torkaizer is a cultural touchstone as much as it is entertainment. By making it a polyglot show, Ahmed is looking internationally – it is as much an opportunity to introduce Japanese culture to Arabs, as it is to show what true, contemporary Arab culture is now.
“I’m talking about cultural issues, reflected using Anime elements.”
Japanese audiences seem to be taking to it – supportive of the new expression of their culture that is blossoming in the Middle East. Alter Ego has put production of other projects (such as their video game Grim Hearts) on hold just to focus on it. Ahmed is excited by the prospects he has in the Far East – and has been screening the pilot episode for select audiences worldwide – his cultural experiment has so far exceeded his wildest dreams.
“I want to encourage people to get into this. To look forward to the creative future of Arabs. I want to gather creative rebels, people who want to think differently, and teach people how to make their own Anime.”
“Change is inevitable – so we’re going to get in, dig down, break the boundaries, and give people something worth watching.”
– Interview by Chris Yeoh
For more information on Alter Ego, visit their official website