By Rahma Rachdi
Tarak Ben Ammar was born on 12 June, 1949 in Tunis to a French mother of Corsican origin and Tunisian father. His father was a lawyer who was later appointed as a diplomat. Tarak is the nephew of Wassila Bourguiba, wife of President Habib Bourguiba – the founder and first president of Tunisia.
He is a self-made tycoon of media, communications, and film production, and a financial advisor to Prince Walid Bin Talal and Silvio Berlusconi. He also was the agent of Michael Jackson. Tarak Ben Ammar defines himself as a “man who was very fortunate to make his dream come true and very proud of his Arabic roots which helped him in creating this path”.
Although his family belonged to the elite classes, well off without being rich, Tarek was sent to boarding school in Rome where he watched four English-language films on every Saturday. He then, discovered the works of future great directors like Roberto Rossellini, Città Aperta, Dino de Laurentiis etc. Inspired by their class, and after graduating from Georgetown University, he decided to become a film director, despite the anger of his father who wished his son becoming a lawyer. He even declined the Harvard Business School offer, in order to fulfil his dream of evolving in the cinema industry.
He has built cinema studios in Tunisia, produced blockbusters with famous films directors such as Roman Polanski, Steven Spielberg, Georges Lucas etc. His latest film is “Black Gold”, a Hollywood movie directed by Jean Jacques Annaud. He has worked on 65 movies, and has been behind many other projects run by his company Quinta Industries. Tarak Ben Ammar is also the partner of Nabil Karoui, at Nessma TV and of Luc Besson in the “City of Cinema” – a multi-billion euro project, one the biggest in Europe, to be launched in September in Paris.
Rahma Rachdi, a journalist with special interest in economy and finance, sat down with Tarak Ben Ammar and had the following candid conversation:
You’re a communication, media, film production tycoon and a financial advisor to Prince Waleed Bin Talal and Silvio Berlusconi. How did it happen?
By chance and interesting encounters. One day I went to see Prince Waleed Bin Talal, whose yacht was next to mine and I gave him my childhood photograph where I was sitting alongside my uncle, Habib Bourguiba, who was also the first president of Tunisia. I then suggested him to invest his petrodollars in media. He listened to me and asked me to submit a business plan. What I did pleased him and he decided to invest.
Do you think it was the right decision to not join Harvard Business School and devote yourself to cinema? The prestigious Harvard that many people dream about?
Yes! I was guided by the passion in my career and my chance was to evolve very early in an Anglo-Saxon dominated world. For Americans I was the “new kid in the block”. I won my lawsuit against Universal, who paid me $16 million, and became the first Arab to win against a major American company. The Washington Post featured me on their front page. I received a note from the Harvard professor, who was to be my teacher, saying: “If you’re the same Tarek Ben Ammar I was supposed to have in my class, you did well not to come to Harvard, for you did not need it”.
How did you become the agent of Michael Jackson?
Michael Jackson was going to have a concert in Morocco which got canceled due to lack of agreement on copyrights. It was also cancelled in Egypt for safety reasons. I then thought that it had to be held somewhere else anyway, and arranged the concert at El Menzah in Tunis, on a 300 sq. metre stage before 60,000 people. Proceeds of the concert went to a charity fund for the needy. And since then, Michael Jackson asked me to become his manager. I then produced his ‘World Tour’ of 58 concerts as part of the Kingdom Entertainment, a media firm I created with Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal.
And you are also the financial advisor and associate of former Italian prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi?
I met Silvio Berlusoni 28 years ago on Hammamet beach in Tunisia. We spent an evening together, became friends and later became business partners. We founded together “Quinta Communications” in 1983. In 1995 I helped his “Mediaset” company to be listed on the stock market, and a year later I became a member of its board of directors.
How did you manage to convince great filmmakers like Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian de Palma, Polanski, Rosselini, Zeffirelli Chabrol, Verneuil to shoot in Tunisia?
When I was at a boarding school in Rome it was the priests who taught me religions including Islam. They did not try to convert me but just instilled the religious notions in me. I then became a specialist of the Bible. When Franco Zeffirelli realised “Jesus of Nazareth” I convinced him to produce it in Tunisia. In return, I asked to be a small part of the production team because I wanted to be left alone to learn the trade. He was amazed that I knew more than him about the Bible despite being a Muslim! I had no money to offer them. I was just guided by my passion and youthful energy. The same worked with other great directors like Polanski, Lucas, Spielberg etc.
You said to the audience during your speech at the 2010 Abu Dhabi film festival: “Imagine what you could do if you have money, which you already have, and because you have it you can do ten times what I did.” Two years later, do you think this has been implemented, keeping in mind the efforts of Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Dubai Film Festival?
Yes. What I said was a provocation of course. It did not reflect the exact reality so that we are clear. With the money Emiratis have got, they have done a lot in many fields. What I meant was that with money they can do a lot in popular culture – films and TV series. I did not intend to teach them what they are already doing – building roads, healthcare and education. But it was a provocation to say: “How can the youth be proud of its culture if they don’t know their culture?”
What I’ve learned as a young Tunisian is that we don’t have to forget the basics that we, as the elite, have to give back to this world that has given us the freedom and the means, of what we are doing.
Do you anticipate that any UAE media outlet could be as successful as Al Jazeera in Qatar?
First of all I have to compliment the people that have launched Sky News Arabia. I visited the studios, I know the people and I was impressed. I think it was certainly a smart decision. It won’t be easy economically, but again I have respect for them because the launch of Sky News Arabia can lead to two scenarios.
I’m sure they must have heard from everybody: “There is already Al Jazeera, there is Al Arabyia, then why creating a new news channel with which chances are you‘re going to lose money… And despite all this, they decided it to do it anyway. I admire them because they are answering exactly what I said at the film festival. God gave you money not just to make buildings, but to take risks of losing money may be by launching a news channel that will give a point of you that matters, a free point of you. And since Al Jazeera reflects a Qatari political orientation, Al Arabiya reflects the Saudi point of view, it should only be fair that Abu Dhabi which, is the richest of the Emirates, has its own news channel.
I’m impressed by their courage, and certainly nobody should criticise them because they might lose money in the future as it was the case for Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera but they have a mission. And it is always about a mission.
You are a great believer of diversity. Do you think the UAE’s status as a melting pot of cultures is a prime asset for the country which could help it succeed in developing its own cinema industry?
Yes definitely. The United Arab Emirates is closer to Asia than it is to Europe and Americas. They are at the crossroads in the relationships between India, China and Russia – all incredible markets. The Emirates should certainly be a place where all film-makers can find home. The UAE has an advantage over other Arab countries – it is the biggest market for features exhibition.
What is the problem Arab film-makers are facing elsewhere? The problem is that there are no movie houses, other than in Lebanon and Egypt.
The Arab film-makers have to make films that are sold overseas along with their own audience in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and other Middle East and North African countries. Therefore, if the film-makers don’t speak to their people first it becomes a problem. The UAE have more than 200 screens. So it is a wonderful ‘diversity lab’ but the problem that we see now is that only Hollywood movies are making money. Why?
There are two reasons: first, the locals want to see Hollywood movies as well as the expats. But with “Black Gold”, the film that I produced, demonstrated that I made a Hollywood movie with an Arab story and it worked. That was my hope, I was afraid that the Arab audience won’t come to see it, as many of them like to watch Arab films, whereas the Americans really want to see their American heroes. But it was the opposite, we had great success during the premiere screening at Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
This means that we can build a demand for Arab film-makers if the films are entertaining with emphasis on professionalism.
‘Black Gold‘, a movie that you produced with Jean Jacques Annaud, is a story about the discovery of oil in Arabia and the impact of petrodollars. Tell us about this financial and human adventure.
I’ve always dreamt of a film such as “Lawrence of Arabia” where the hero is the Arab prince (Omar Sharif) instead of Captain Lawrence. That’s why I wanted to produce Black Gold. In this film we had more than 400 Tunisian technicians working on the shoot. They were professional actors, craftsmen, decorators, painters, and cameramen working across every department. Only 10% of the crew was made up of foreign workers.
Do you believe that the Arab identity must be defended by Arabic-language film-makers and producers, more than by American movies from Hollywood? Why?
Yes, but not only by Arab Film makers. If Roman Polanski made “Rosemary’s baby” in Chinatown, is that his culture? That’s why I took Jean Jacques Annaud to make “Black Gold.” I wanted to show the world that our culture is as good as any other culture. Sir Richard Attenborough, a British film-maker, made a movie about India’s legendary leader Gandhi, despite not being an Indian. So we should be proud that famous film-makers want to tell our stories.
You have encouraged Arabian-themed film productions such as ‘Miral‘ and ‘Outlaw‘. Why these choices?
“Miral” is Julian Shnabel’s film which is based on Palestinian journalist Ruba Jebreal’s biographical book. It tells the story of the wonderful Palestinian lady Hind Husseini who founded the “Dar El Tifl” orphanage in Jerusalem, following the occupation of Palestine and creation of the State of Israel in 1948. This was a film which was politically sensitive and commercially challenging. A film that was defiantly pro-peace and in favour of the establishment of a Palestinian state made by an Jewish American film maker who had spent his whole life being a keen supporter of Israel. “Miral” won the Unicef Award at the Venice Film Festival for best reflecting the principles of Unicef. I’m proud to say that it has also been selected for a special screening at the United Nations General Assembly. You cannot measure the value of something like that in mere dollars and cents. As for Rachid Bouchareb’s ‘Outlaw’, it is a story about the Algerian struggle for independence against the French colonial rule. The movie was well-received at Cannes and lauded by pundits.
You launched Nessma TV, a satellite channel, with Nabil Karoui, and it went on to become the top channel in Algeria and Tunisia while the second-most watched channel in Morocco? What is the main reason behind the success?
Nessma TV is watched by over 90 millions Arabs in North Africa and 25 million Arabs in Europe. It is also on Nilesat and Arabsat, allowing audiences across the entire Arab world to access it as well. We are an outspoken TV channel. Recently during the Arab Spring, Nessma was the first channel to denounce the regime soon after the immolation of Bouzizi in Sidi Bouzid that sowed the seeds of revolution.
Would you encourage Emirati filmmakers to direct and produce Western movies for acquiring an international status?
Yes, of course! There are no boundaries in cinema!
There is Hollywood in US, Bollywood in India, Nollywood in Nigeria. Can you imagine ‘Allywood’ (Arab world cinema industry)?
Absolutely! In fact I’ll be even tougher. With the money that God gave to the Arabs, they will have no excuse to not use it to create the market for their film-makers, their talent and culture. And that is the mission I called upon during my speech in Abu Dhabi two years ago.
You made your Arabic roots an asset whereas some would have carried it as a burden. What inspired you?
I am proud to be a Tunisian and Arab and I hope that the next generations will be as strong and proud as I am.
There is nothing finer than patriotism because it gives young people the love of their country, values, institutions, history and culture. This is the reason why I invested in Nessma TV and believe in this project for the Arab Maghreb. The aim of the channel is to have a union between the Arab Maghreb nations whose motherland is North Africa.
You are a role model for young Arabs around the world. What would be your advice to these generations?
There is no real advice to be given. Just follow your passion and cling to your dreams.
This is why your name “Tarak” which means “Path” in Arabic?
That is very kind of you to say. Thank you very much.
Rahma Rachdi is a French journalist who specialises in economy and finance. She also covers cultural (fashion and cinema) and political events, and other issues linked to the MENA region. Rahma is also the editor of fun-finance.com, a website where economy and finance matters are explained with the help of short, informative and funny comics and animations.