Set in the near future of Dhaka, Bangladesh where rising sea levels and the advent of robotics has displaced many, the sci-fi thriller, PROJECT OMMI, tells the story of two techies: a hacker and a digital artist, who team up to create an artificially intelligent boy, named Ommi. His purpose is to save trafficked children and defeat criminals on the web.
But as their simulation becomes more real… more like their own child, they face a moral dilemma: can they send their boy into the Darknet?
Project Ommi is a new thought-provoking science fiction thriller currently running a Kickstarter campaign, I had the chance to speak with director Amit Ashraf about Bangladesh’s first cyberpunk sci-fi.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your previous work ?
My name is Amit Ashraf. I was born in the US, but spent all my summers in Bangladesh. I went to NYU TISCH where I studied filmmaking, script writing and animation. After graduating I made my first feature film in Bangladesh called Udhao (Runaway) . It tells the story of a bounty hunter who captures runaway husbands/fathers. Udhao screened at 25 film festivals and won 7 awards. It released theatrically to critical appeal. I stayed in Bangladesh for the next six years working on various narrative projects including a web series about a superheroine named Kali. Project Ommi will be my second feature film and is going into production early next year.
The Bangladesh Film Industry is well known for melodrama, embodied by the industry of Dhallywood, a model similar to Bollywood. Therefore, Project Ommi offers something unique. How do you see Project Ommi fitting into the Bangladeshi film industry and for a global audience?
There is a craving for something new among sci-fi fans globally, especially from the younger audience. They are all used to Hollywood and Netflix shows so they crave raw and real aesthetics. Project Ommi will be something refreshing and much needed from an unknown film industry, and it will appeal to a large global audience.
Part of the movie is set in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, the majority is set in a ship graveyard on the coast. It looks like a very mystical place, perfect for futuristic/dystopian fiction (it reminds me of the Mad Max: Fury Road aesthetic in some way). How does this location inspire you?
The shipyards in Dhaka fit with the aesthetic of cyberpunk science fiction and also just work with the story and the metaphors in Project Ommi. In this graveyard, life is being made. The main character, Ravi, is a hacker on the run, so a transient location like a ship, which can float away or sink, is perfect for his story. Something about the setting just fit- It’s a strangely beautiful place. The shipyards in nearby city, Chittagong, are very similar to the ones in Dhaka and were actually inspiration for the aesthetic in Blade Runner 2049.
You’ve mentioned that you wanted to create a new aesthetic based upon the sci-fi genre coupled with the Bangladeshi environment, in order to create a new standard of Bangladeshi cinema. Could you tell us more about your intentions?
We’re used to seeing the Western world or Japan in the future, but we’ve never really seen Bangladesh or India. Some of the aesthetics will be reminiscent of cyberpunk films, because there is something universally honest about that style. But in some instances, the future world will be reimagined with local charm. What will mosques look like? What will rickshaws or Shari dresses be like? Beyond the rust of the shipyard, I also want Project Ommi to imagine sleeker, neon parts of the city of Dhaka. Taking a step back, as Bangladesh’s capital city develops, Project Ommi asks how will we shape its future?
Shooting a movie implies responsibilities towards the subject and filming location. Here, your team seems concerned by the situation in Bangladesh, especially about climate change, water crisis and the working conditions in the graveyards. If the narration takes into account these situations (the hydro-filter is a fictional invention allowing to purify unclean water), does your team use other ways to make a difference in Bangladesh?
Project Ommi aims to spread awareness of these issues. Mainly the issues of child exploitation in the digital age and our relationship to technology. A few years ago I saw a successful online campaign designed to expose criminals operating on the Darknet. Project Ommi is inspired by this event. This online campaign was run by international children’s charity Terre des Hommes. It featured a lifelike digital child in 3D, which they called Sweetie. Project Ommi takes this idea into the future where an AI boy is created to live in the net, and fight criminals online. Terre Des Hommes endorse Project Ommi.
Globally, the position of Project Ommi is very enthusiastic about technology and scientific progress. However, many Sci-Fi movies base their narration on the dangers and dark side of technology (Moon, District Nine, Her, or more recently the TV series Black Mirror). How do you explain this general enthusiasm for technology in Project Ommi? Do you think that technology and more precisely AI could be dangerous in some way?
The main idea here is that AI is like a child. You can raise children improperly to become evil, or you can show them love so they can be good. AI is shaped by how we teach it and use it. Project Ommi takes the concept of AI and says: it’s not computer intelligence which threatens humans, it’s the way we choose to use it, which counts. The film supports the #tech4good message, that we can use technology to improve lives.
What’s next for Project Ommi ?
We’ve filmed a part of the film and we’re excited to be shooting the main scenes early in 2019. We’re currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise £25,000 / €27,700 for the special effects of the next shoot. We’d love as many people who believe in the project to get involved! In return for your support you can get a host of exclusive merchandise and pre-order a copy of the film. There’s only 1 week left of our Kickstarter campaign. You can find it here: http://bit.ly/ProjectOmmi