Cast and crew’s delight as Dunya’s Day becomes first Saudi film to premiere in Kingdom

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A still from the movie "Dunya's Day" (Supplied)
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(Photo: Supplied)
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(Photo: Supplied)
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Updated 11 January 2019
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Cast and crew’s delight as Dunya’s Day becomes first Saudi film to premiere in Kingdom

  • The film tells the story of Dunya as she struggles to organize an important party after her household staff fail to show up to help

RIYADH: Raed Alsemari on Thursday night became the first Saudi film director honored with the premier of a locally-made movie in his home country.
An audience of more than 200 people watched his short comedy, “Dunya’s Day,” on the IMAX screen at the Vox Cinema at Riyadh Park during an invitation-only event organized by the General Culture Authority, represented by the Saudi Film Council.
In addition to a Saudi director, the film has an all-Saudi, all-female cast, was shot on location in the Kingdom and will shortly become the first Saudi film shown at the renowned Sundance Film Festival.
The film tells the story of Dunya as she struggles to organize an important party after her household staff fail to show up to help.
Alsemari, a post-graduate student of film at New York University, welcomed the audience before the screening, making sure to let them know that they were “allowed to laugh” — and laugh they did. The film entertained a delighted crowd who rewarded the director with a hearty round of applause as as the credits rolled.
After the screening, Alsemari thanked his family, friends and the cast and crew. He revealed that most of those involved in the production were volunteers working an a film for the first time.
“We were like a family on set,” he added.
The main cast includes Sarah Balghonaim as Dunya, and Sarah Altaweel and Rahaf as Dalal and Deema, her best friends. Balghonaim joined the project to help with casting, but when Alsemari was unable to find an actor he liked for the title character, he asked Balghonaim to take the role.
By making a film with an all-female cast, Alsemari and the actors were keen to highlight the fact that Saudi women have stories that deserve to be told, and that films need not be driven by male characters. Inspired by classic Hollywood movies such as “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” Alsemari wanted to put his own, Saudi twist on those stories.
“I wanted to tell a story about an Arab woman who was neither a victim nor a saint,” he said. “She’s in a position of power in the narrative. That was important for us.”
To prepare for the film, the actors immersed themselves in their roles.
“We even referred to each other by our character names during the shoot,” said Altaweel. “We were completely into it.”
All three stars were generous in their praise of Alsemari, particularly his skill as a director.
“It’s such a blessing working with a director who knows exactly what he wants, and knows the characters perfectly, especially for a first-time film actress,” said Rahaf. “He understood us, he understood our needs and he was always careful to involve us in every step of the process.”
Faisal Baltyuor, the CEO of the Saudi Film Council, highlighted the organization’s desire to support local projects such as “Dunya’s Day,” and encouraged would-be Saudi filmmakers to take the first step toward realizing their visions.
“We have so many stories to tell, from every small town to every coast in the country,” he said. “Do not hesitate. Start on your next film and let us help you.”
While they were enjoying the premiere of their film, the cast and crew also still seemed to be in shock after the recent announcement that it will be screened at Sundance Festival, which begins on January 24 in Utah.
“It still hasn’t sunk in fully yet,” said Alsemari, “but it feels incredible. I’m so excited to make it out there.”
“I’m so proud of the entire team,” said Balghonaim. “I’m especially proud that the first Saudi Sundance film features an all-female cast.”
“It has to be said, however, that the experience itself was rewarding enough; the Sundance thing is just a bonus,” said Rahaf. “I know everyone says stuff like that but that’s what I honestly feel.”
In the midst of all the excitement, Alsemari is already thinking about what to do next and hopes that next time he’s back to screen a film in Saudi Arabia, it will be a full-length feature.
“I’m working on graduating now, but who knows?” he added.


Who is Mahershala Ali? The rise of the Oscar-nominated actor

Mahershala Ali has been nominated for an Oscar. (AFP)
Updated 14 min 25 sec ago
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Who is Mahershala Ali? The rise of the Oscar-nominated actor

DUBAI: Movie geeks are abuzz for this year’s Academy Awards, following revelations that several nominees could make history for the 91-year-old ceremony.

Among them, Mahershala Ali could win an Oscar for his performance in “Green Book,” and become the fastest star to win two awards in the same category.

The 44-year-old won Best Supporting Actor in 2017 for “Moonlight” when he again made history as the first Muslim to triumph in the category.

Ali, born Mahershalalhashbaz Gilmore to a Christian mother in Oakland, California in 1974, converted to Islam in 1999.

“It just felt like a life sign. I’d come from sports, so I appreciated the discipline that the religion requires. For me, it was a way of living more deliberately,” said Ali.

He added, in an interview with British magazine the Radio Times: “I felt I was connecting to something that was making my physical experience more peaceful.”

Hollywood has been criticized recently for its lack of diversity, and more and more actors have become increasingly vocal about the Academy’s need to better represent US society.

Winners in the past have often used their acceptance speeches to talk about race, identity and other contentious issues.

When Ali received an award for “Moonlight” at the 2017 Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, he addressed being Muslim and his relationship with his Christian mother.

“My mother is an ordained minister. I’m a Muslim. She didn’t do back flips when I called her to tell her I converted 17 years ago,” he said.

But he discounted the idea that differing faiths need drive people apart, highlighting how their differences never hurt their relationship, saying: “We love each other. The love has grown.”

Ali kicked off his career in the early noughties, after graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. After completing his education, Ali was cast in a small indie film, “Making Revolution” (2003), and went on to earn small roles in TV shows before he scored a role in 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” alongside Brad Pitt. After earning an Emmy nomination in 2016 for his part on Netflix show “House of Cards,” Ali took on a variety of roles and appears in the latest season of “True Detective” as the lead character.