Q&A: Beno Saradzic, the Man Behind ‘Beyond’

Beno Saradzic (Via)
Beno Saradzic (Via)
Beno Saradzic (Via)

By now you’ve probably seen Beyond, the breathtaking timelapse video of the UAE shot over two years by photographer and filmmaker Beno Saradzic.

“We see the amazing architecture and the veins of traffic which flow among them. We see the courageous people and giant machines who built all of this. We see the vision of its leaders, materializing before our very eyes.”

But what don’t we see in the seven minutes of stunning visuals? What’s beyond Beyond? We chat with Saradzic to get the behind the scenes scoop on the film – to the untrained eye, it beautifully betrays little to nothing about the time, skill and harrowing heights that went into making it – and his distinct, reverent view of the UAE.

UAE flag (Beno Saradzic Via)
UAE flag (Beno Saradzic Via)

A thoughtful artist dedicated to his craft, we catch Saradzic at a turning point in his career. “More than ever, I feel the need to follow a higher purpose,” he shares with us. It seems that Beyond, in all its spectacle and splendor, is but a mere shadow of what’s to come.

We can’t wait to see what this man does next.

 

What first brought you to the UAE?

It was 1990. I had just finished my compulsory military service and when I returned home, I was jobless with no idea what to do with my life. Ex-Yugoslavia was beginning to fall apart and civil war was looming, the immediate future very bleak.

It was 1991 and I received a call from my uncle who had lived in the UAE since the early 80s. He was running a successful interior design firm and he needed help in his design section. My background was in electronics engineering and I was fluent around computers.

My uncle wanted to move away from traditional, manual drafting of architectural drawings and replace it with, at that time, cutting-edge, Computer Aided Design, or CAD. This was my cue.

On July 8, 1991, I took my first breath of air at the Abu Dhabi international airport. I’ll never forget that day.

 

You’ve been in the Emirates for over two decades – longer than much of the young and eager masses who live there now, so you’ve seen it rise and stumble and thrive. Did you ever think of leaving? Why did you stay?

Oh yes. UAE was a very different place back in the early 90s. There wasn’t a single mall. Not one cinema. Infrastructure was in its infancy and there wasn’t a single skyscraper on the horizon. Just plenty of sunny days, blues seas and white sands. There was very little stress and mostly good times.

I fell in love with the laid back, relaxed pace of the Arab lifestyle, Arabic food and their culture. Everyone was extremely welcoming, friendly and open to newcomers. I felt safe. Very soon, I met new friends, I had a job that I loved and the future looked peachy.

UAE was still unknown to most of the outside world and to me, it was like a secret oasis. All mine.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque under construction in 2002 (Beno Saradzic Via)
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque under construction in 2002 (Beno Saradzic Via)

So much has changed in only 20 years. It’s like a whole different country. I have witnessed and lived through its transformation, yet I can barely recognize it.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become high-tech oases full of wonders only mankind could envision and build. Dubai seems like a place from a sci-fi movie set. It exists in the future, not in the present.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are now among the most dynamic, exciting and majestic cities on this planet. They have grown and matured from little toddlers into stunning beauties.

I don’t feel like a guest here. This country has become a part of my DNA. This is why I have never thought of leaving it. How could I?

Abu Dhabi morning (Beno Saradzic Via)
Abu Dhabi morning (Beno Saradzic Via)

 

Beyond showcases some of the UAE’s most well-known (and most seen) fixtures. What doesn’t it show? From lesser known and under-appreciated beauty to the glossed over, not-so-pretty side of the Emirates?

When you look at my film, you see pretty lights and otherworldly buildings. You can’t feel the awful heat and humidity I was experiencing when I was shooting the film. Summer heat in the UAE is unforgivable and will break anything and anyone. It must be respected.

The narrative arc which spans across both ends of my film is one of admiration and awe-struck observation of the UAE’s seven wonders of the world.

We see the amazing architecture and the veins of traffic which flow among them. We see the courageous people and giant machines who built all of this. We see the vision of its leaders, materializing before our very eyes.

(Beno Saradzic Via)
(Beno Saradzic Via)

But the real UAE is so much more than concrete, steel and glass.

My film does not show the poetic, enduring quality of the Arab ways.

It does not show the peace and silence of the infinite sand dunes that surround these cities. Or the fishermen that go out at sea in their wooden boats in the middle of the night, before returning to the port several weeks or months later.

We don’t see or smell the incense burning at the old Souk and its musky network of pathways. We don’t see the devotion to God and the worshiping people in the countless mosques. We see almost nothing of what it’s really like to live and work in the UAE.

I hope that one day, my films will dig deeper under the hood.

A candid shot in Abu Dhabi (Beno Saradzic Via)
A candid shot in Abu Dhabi (Beno Saradzic Via)

 

A lot of people don’t realize what it takes and the story behind a single photograph. What are the lengths you’ve gone to just to get a shot?

Beno Saradzic (Via)
Beno Saradzic (Via)

Filmmaking takes a lot from a person. Time lapse filmmaking takes ten times as much.

Not everyone would be willing to get up at 3am in freezing weather for an entire week in a row to be on the rooftop of a skyscraper with 50 to 100 kg of camera gear just to be ready for the sunrise. Few people would go this far for a shot.

Time lapse photography is also a very time consuming process. Let me give you an idea: In the opening shot, you see shadows of the skyscraper traveling across the mangroves. I started shooting at 7am (I got up at 5am) and I was shooting until the sunset, 12 hours later. I was back at home at 9pm that day, completely knackered.

I didn’t just set up the camera to shoot the shadows, one shot every 20 seconds. No. I was next to the camera this whole time, adjusting exposure and making sure that no frame was too dark or too light. It was hot, dusty and very uncomfortable. But I stayed at this spot the whole day. That is dedication.

To capture the shots at DP World (container port in Jebel Ali, Dubai), I first needed to secure filming permits. This process alone took four weeks of my life. There were countless e-mails, phone calls, site visits and meetings before I was given a green light to shoot.

The shoot itself was harrowing: 200 kg of gear had to be carried on top of the cranes, 80 meters high. I was shooting while they were loading and unloading containers weighing up to 60 tonnes. Each time the crane lifted the container, the entire structure jolted and shook. The steel was flexing under my feet. That is no fun when you’re standing 25 floors high on a steel mesh with a heavy camera and tripod. It was scary as hell and I’ll never forget this experience.

The 2.5 year shoot of Beyond was mentally and physically extremely demanding. By the time I was done, I couldn’t even look at the camera.

Beno Saradzic (Via)
Burj Khalifa rising above the fog (Beno Saradzic Via)

 

Time lapse, especially, takes immense dedication and technical skill. About how many hours would you estimate went into Beyond?

Not sure how many hours exactly but I was on it for 2.5 years, out of which I spent about half of this time on securing permissions and working on logistics. Shooting took approximately 12 months and the editing, inclusive of music scoring, took another six months.

It’s mind boggling when you think that the whole film lasts just over seven minutes.

Beno Saradzic (Via)
Beno Saradzic (Via)

 

You’ve done quite a bit of commercial work, but Beyond is different than much of what you’ve done before. It’s more editorial, it tells a story. Does this mark a new chapter in your career?

Yes, definitely. I no longer wish to shoot just pretty postcards for money. I’d like to dedicate a lot more of my time to personal projects and work on things that feed my soul. Client projects pay my bills of course, but creatively speaking, they lead to creative stagnation and artistic death.

I feel like I’m fading each time I deliver a commercial project. More than ever, I feel the need to follow a higher purpose.

This is why I began listening to my own heart. Beyond was just a start, a taste of things I’d really like to work on for the rest of my life.

Beno Saradzic (Via)
Shooting Dubai (Beno Saradzic Via)

 

Give us the scoop on your next big project.

I’ve already started thinking about my next project and it’s very exciting. It will be a brand new direction for me because I’m planning to take my game to a whole new level.

I won’t talk about the details yet but I can say that the scope will be far grander and deeper than anything I’ve done before in my life. It will be tough and it will take time, but I’m ready.

Nothing good ever comes easy.

 

WE SAID THIS: Be sure to check out Beno on Facebook to see more of his incredible photography.

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