Middle East generates more than money

Filmmakers find the region is rich in stories

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LONDON -- The Middle East is awash with financiers and filmmakers hunting for an oasis of cash in these harsh economic times. But for one producer with operations in Los Angeles and the United Arab Emirates, it's also a region rich in stories that lend themselves to the big-screen treatment.

Michelle Nickelson, president of UAE based Mirage Holdings, is prepping a documentary and developing two feature projects, all from the region. First up will be the doc "We the People of the Islamic Republic of Iran," an exploration of the Iranian presidential election process.

Nickelson and her L.A. crew recently secured clearance from the Iranian government to go to the country next year to scout locations and interviewees.

"We want to interview a broad representation of people living there and how it feels for them in the run-up to next summer's presidential election," she said. "Most Americans don't realize that, in addition to the shi'ah, there is also a Jewish and Christian community in Iran and they have representation in the government."

Nickelson is in talks with U.S. distributors for the project and is seeking international partners for what she says will be a doc made for theatrical release. The budget is set at $1.5 million, and Javad Shamghadri, cultural adviser to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iranian director Mohammed Reza Eslamloo are assisting with preparations and permits.

Nickelson also is prepping two movie projects: "United" and "Antar of Liwa, the Black Knight."

Based on the true story of Asrar Al Qabandi, "United" centers on the U.S.-educated Kuwaiti woman who was the backbone of the Kuwaiti resistance during the Gulf War. Al Qabandi was killed two days before Desert Storm launched.

Former CNN news chief Eason Jordan was involved in the story as Al Qabandi called in to CNN nightly to report on what was happening. Jordan will serve as a consultant on the project, and Nickelson is partnering with Sheikha Al Zain Al Sabah of the Kuwaiti Royal family.

Nickelson also is developing a movie script about pre-Islamic hero Antar. The son of an Arab prince and an African slave, he rose from the ranks of slave to become a warrior for his tribe and a poet and philosopher of repute. The filmmakers are looking to shoot the film in Liwa, Abu Dhabi, and have submitted the script to the Media Council in Abu Dhabi.

All three projects have attracted backing from Nickelson's network of monied backers. The budget for each feature is likely to run about $25 million.

"With everyone coming to the Middle East to find financing, we feel that it is important to look at making films that also have some tie to the region," she said.