This is NYU Abu Dhabi

Anthony Geffen, BAFTA and Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker, explains the process behind the first feature film about NYU Abu Dhabi.

What was the vision behind the movie? What did you want to capture with this title?

The story needed to be told, in my view, through the people because the people make the story. It's very easy to say, ‘this is the University, it has this number of classrooms, etc.’ but that's not a film that I would ever make. The film that I was really interested in making involved talking to people that had been previously at NYUAD, people who were currently there, people who were abroad at that time, and talking to the professors.

So, the first step was getting a big picture. But then finding those individuals, who I felt represented the story or could represent the story because obviously, you only get so much time. I think if you're clever as a filmmaker, you find maybe four or five or six storylines and that tells the story, that's the power.

I didn't really want this to be, from my point of view, a PR film. I thought there was an opportunity for something much richer here. You know, the story of NYUAD is a really rich one, a really diverse one, a really unique one, and I wanted to capture that.  

What was the process like?

We spent a lot of time talking to many different people over many, many months trying to work out who those characters were, who were all those people that were going to tell that story. We talked to the University constantly and they had ideas and we followed it through, you know, films come from a lot of research.

A lot of thought, a lot of trying to answer the question of, ‘How do you tell this story? Which is a great story?’ And it is an extraordinary university. I went to Oxford and it's comparable in many ways to Oxford.

There’s something unique in NYUAD in that the people coming in are unique, they're coming from all over the world, they're given a global perspective, which is amazing because they get lots of time abroad, and what comes out of NYUAD is a very unique person that contributes to the world.

We knew we had to touch on other things. I knew we had to touch on the arts and we had to touch on the sports. But I wanted the characters themselves to come to those conclusions, not the other way around.

The way you shot it, how did it reflect that general idea, or vision to the film?

I tried to shoot the interviews differently so that they felt much more reflective than normally in the film, the shots had no clutter behind them. We did them in a black space which kind of means that the people's accounts and memories and everything come across more powerfully in that way.

We tried to shoot the University in surprising ways using drones. So that you've got lots of images of spaces in the University that people didn't know about.

So this is a film about characters, about individuals coming to this university that represent the ethos or the spirit of the University. When you were interviewing these individuals, did you find some sort of shared characteristic that was imparted from the University itself or some sort of shared attribute that drew them to NYUAD?

I think the  thing that people seem to be interested in is that this is a different University. This is a University that's very young, which is great, so it's full of new energy, new ideas, and new ways of structuring. But also, it's got an incredible global vision and everybody there sort of wants to belong to a bigger story. They all come from different backgrounds, they all come from different places. They will all travel to several places through J-term and other things. And I think they share that attribute.

But once you get everybody in a space, and you've certainly got these diverse backgrounds, the place becomes thinking about diverse things, you know? That's incredible. Really. There isn't another university I know in the world that is like that.

You come from a background of making these big budget, epic documentaries about everything from a team climbing Mount Everest to some of the most well-known nature documentaries of our time, such as David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef. So what drew you to this project with a small, young University, in a young nation?

You know you might think of the big epics, but often it's those stories that you come across that stick with you. I was invited to the Ideas Abu Dhabi conference by Tamkeen, and began thinking about this place. I love places that are unusual, I love places that are changing, I love places that are opening people's eyes to the world. And here, as I walked out from one of my talks at Ideas Abu Dhabi, I sort of thought, “Wow, people should know about this place, you know, it's very, very unique and if I could apply my storytelling skills I felt it could be very powerful.” I think what they're doing at the University is extraordinary. I don't know any other university like that.

It’s open to everybody and it's doing good. Small things that do real good influence bigger things. If we can bring the world together in different ways and by bringing them together in these small ways and getting people to talk, they then go away to their different parts of the world with a much greater and bigger sum of the parts.

Now let's zoom in a little bit, you mentioned research, any power piece of art requires a lot of research and you touched on that. What was the first step in terms of your research for making this film?

I always start the game once the film starts, I begin to think about what I am going to do. Then we clear the decks and for four or five, or six months, I just want to talk to people in my team, I want to just hear their stories. Then we can build the film right where I don't want to hear about this is some book where somebody says something, I want to hear from people.

There are challenges, we interviewed hundreds of people knowing that we would only use a few. But some of the things that we were told we used as an arc for the story, we also then chose people that we felt were sort of part of that mosaic of stories that was going to allow us to translate the story of the University. If you want to find out about the number of majors, the academics, etc., there is plenty of information about that online. But this film should emotionally move you, so that you understand that there are these very powerful stories within this young and imaginative University.