Journey to Mecca: Casting Ibn Battuta
Casting Director Kate Dowd worked alongside Barker, Davies and Neibaur while they searched for actors who spoke both English and classical Arabic. "This involved auditioning just about anyone who had been in a film from this region stretching from Morocco up into Europe," says Neibaur. Finding the right actor to play Ibn Battuta was a struggle. Many fine actors were auditioned, but for various reasons they didn't have all the required qualities.
When Chems Eddine Zinoun walked in the door to audition for a smaller part in the film, he had no idea his life was going to change. "Chems had an immediate presence. And that's a gift. That's something you are born with. It also comes from his upbringing and background. He was regal without being stuffy and carried himself in such an elegant and poised way," recalls Neibaur.
After the initial audition, Zinoun was invited to come back in an hour and read for the role of Ibn Battuta. Neibaur was pretty sure they had their lead, but still, the search continued for someone more experienced and mainstream. However, after the third call back with the director and the producers, they felt that Zinoun was superb and had all the requisite qualities and the search was over. His presence in front of the camera was undeniable and he won the role in February 2008.
Playing Ibn Battuta seemed to be his destiny for, after going on the internet to do some research, Zinoun discovered that before Ibn Battuta began his travels, he had the same name as his, Shams Al-Din. "I'm half Berber and Ibn Battuta was a Berber. He's from my country and is a grand personage, I feel very proud," said Zinoun, who was playing his first lead role in a film. "It is a magnificent experience. I am very lucky," said the 27- year-old actor/dancer.
"When I'm on the set, I forget present time. I discover how people lived and traveled the desert and crossed mountains, many dying en route to go to the Hajj." He added, with a mischievous smile, "Battuta was a bit of a Casanova. He married in many of the cities he traveled through. He was a lover of life, that's what gave him the power to travel. We are all Ibn Battuta's. We all can go to China and discover the unknown."
"The entire production team was in awe of Chems' performance as Ibn Battuta" said Jonathan Barker. "He became Ibn Battuta. He spoke with a quiet confidence. He insisted on doing all his own stunts, he knew horsemanship but learned to ride camels, swordfight and endure endless takes in costume in the hot sun always in great spirits. His great agility as a dancer was apparent as he jumped on and off horses and camels with ease. One of my favorite moments of the day was teasing him over the ongoing trials of the shoot and having a laugh in French with Chems and Hassam, our Highwayman."
Chems also spent endless hours with acclaimed Dialect Coach Samia Adnan, a Sudanese, who worked on Rendition and Syria, and has another connection to Ibn Battuta. She translated excerpts from Ibn Battuta's original travelogue for Wellesley College in the U.S. She worked with Chems for many months and was very impressed by his concentration, hard work and perseverance. "He was so open, fun and easy to work with, so responsive and respectful."
"I have never seen anyone in my 30 years of directing work harder in a role," recalls Neibaur. "And with such patience, focus, wit and gentleness. He gave his all in his performance and was an absolute pleasure to work with. You don't often become friends with an actor but Chems became a friend."
"The success of this film depends in no small measure on the performance of Chems as Ibn Battuta," says Davies, "and we could not be happier with his excellent work."
Shortly after completing his extraordinary work on the film, Chems Eddine Zinoun
passed away on November 12th, 2008 after a tragic car accident in Casablanca. "The
Producers, director Bruce Neibaur and the entire production team deeply regret the
death of this wonderful actor and exceptional person," says Cunningham-Reid.
Shortly after completing his extraordinary work on the film, Chems Eddine Zinoun passed away on November 12th, 2008 after a tragic car accident in Casablanca. "The Producers, director Bruce Neibaur and the entire production team deeply regret the death of this wonderful actor and exceptional person," says Cunningham-Reid.