Saudi director Tawfik Alzaidi: ‘A filmmaker needs to understand the human soul’ 

Saudi filmmaker Tawfik Alzaidi’s masterful directorial debut 'Norah' is the first Saudi film to be shot entirely in the Kingdom’s historic AlUla region. (Supplied)
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Updated 17 November 2023
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Saudi director Tawfik Alzaidi: ‘A filmmaker needs to understand the human soul’ 

  • The Saudi filmmaker’s debut feature, ‘Norah,’ has the industry buzzing ahead of its premiere at the RSIFF 

DUBAI: What happens to a dream deferred? That is the central question of “Norah,” Saudi filmmaker Tawfik Alzaidi’s masterful directorial debut, and the first Saudi film to be shot entirely in the Kingdom’s historic AlUla region. The movie is set in 1996, decades before Saudi Arabia opened itself up to the world and began to directly support its now-thriving artistic community, and follows a teacher named Nader, whose ambitions of becoming an artist himself are drying up like a raisin in the sun.  

While Nader, played by Saudi actor Yaqoub Alfarhan (“Rashash,” “Scales”) knows that he may never achieve his dreams, and has taken an ill-fated job as a teacher in a rural town that will never accept him, he refuses to give up on the dreams of others. He takes a young girl named Norah (Maria Bahrawi) under his wing, helping her discover that there is more to life than the limited choices that have been placed in front of her, and that her own artistic expression, not to mention her own voice as a powerful woman, may someday be embraced by her country even if his may never be.  

Alzaidi’s own story is much like Nader’s, albeit with a happy ending. He, too, grew up in a time when the idea of becoming a professional artist felt like a fantasy. He, too, refused to give up on his passion despite the lack of opportunity. But at the 2023 edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival, his dream will finally be achieved. After 20 years of waiting, he will premiere his first feature-length film at the country’s biggest celebration of the artform, thanks in part to the support of the Kingdom he loves so much.  

“To me, this is the only way I ever wanted this to happen. We talked about debuting the film at places like Venice or Toronto, but I refused. This is a film about the power of our artists, and so we had to embrace the power of our audience. We will show the world that we are a true force of nature. Audiences here waited so long to have great cinematic creations of our own, and our time is finally here,” Alzaidi tells Arab News.  

“When I’ve showed this to people in private screenings, they always say to me that this movie contains one thing above all else: the truth. I am so happy that our truth can now be told. Filmmaking brings together all the tools of artistic expression together, so I believe there is no better way to tell our stories,” he continues.  

Alzaidi’s own passion for storytelling was born the day that he saw George Miller’s 1980s classic “Mad Max II” when he was nine years old. He was never formally educated in filmmaking, nor did he feel he had to be, as all it really took was the dedicated study of masters like Stanley Kubrick, alongside a healthy number of cheesy B movies (the latter so he could “learn what not to do”). But first and foremost, great cinema is not born out of technical skill, it is about an understanding of narrative.  

“When I first watched ‘Mad Max,’ at that age, I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, but I experienced a whole range of feelings. I realized the significance of cinema in incorporating reality into our own creativity. I saw films as parallel universes that draw on reality as it passes through the artist. Then, as a teenager, I wanted to be a filmmaker,” AlZaidi explains. 

“A person who makes films needs to understand the human soul, and the power of story. Sure, they need to be educated, knowledgeable, and curious, but it’s also about their qualities as a person — their optimism and their pessimism, and their yearning to discover, and that is found everywhere in their lives. For me I gain just as much from watching a great film as I do reading a book by Murakami,” he continues.  

Alzaidi started the script for “Norah” in 2015, guided over the last eight years first and foremost by a desire to make a truly cinematic film, as everything else that he saw releasing was either an extension of the country’s YouTube culture, or its television.  

“All these other films are not on the cinematic level,” he says. Even from that first draft, he was writing with his male star in mind, though he had no idea how he would find the right Norah — a character named after, though not directly inspired by, his own mother. 

“I had been friends with Yaqoub for years, and we’d always discussed doing something big and  cinematic together, so there was never anyone else who was going to play Nader. Norah, however, was more difficult. I had an image of her in my mind, but I didn’t know if she existed. It was so difficult to find,” says Alzaidi. 

He interviewed actress after actress on Zoom, but no one matched the character’s spirit, or understood what drove her. 

“I gave each of them a questionnaire, and asked them to answer as Norah. No one could capture her, until we found 16-year-old Maria Bahrawi two weeks before shooting began in AlUla — a place I chose because it is a work of art by itself. She understood what it was like to want something more, and to not be sure if she would get it. When we auditioned, she had basically zero confidence, because she’d just been rejected for another role on the basis that she ‘couldn’t act.’ But I saw Norah’s spirit in her,” says Alzaidi. 

“Two weeks before we began filming, I cast her. Maria cried after we hung up, not because she got the part, but because she thought she hadn’t. Her mother told me the story later—it was because I hadn’t said one thing about the film, I had only asked her about her life. She literally couldn’t believe she had gotten it. But it was perhaps the best decision I made for this entire film. Maria is Norah,” he continues.

As many dreams as Alzaidi has for himself, with a new world opened up to him now as people rave about the film behind the scenes in the industry, he is most excited about young artists like Bahrawi. As he anxiously awaits the film’s first screening at RSIFF, he is thinking most about her and those like her, and the new world that is opening up to them. 

“I don’t think this is a film that’s trying to have one message — art is subjective, after all,” he says. “But when audiences of the next generation see this film, I want them to remember one thing: Believe in yourself. And if you have a voice, never stop fighting for it.” 


UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

Updated 25 May 2024
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UK literary festival cancels sponsor after pro-Palestine boycott

  • Speakers, performers pull out from scheduled appearances in protest over Baillie Gifford sponsorship
  • Boycott organizer: Hay must shun future sponsorship by companies with links to ‘Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide’

LONDON: The UK’s Hay literary festival has dropped its main sponsor over a boycott criticizing its links to Israel and fossil fuel companies.

Speakers and performers at the festival pulled out from scheduled appearances in protest over investment firm Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, The Guardian reported.

On Friday, the festival said it was canceling its sponsorship deal with the firm.

Singer Charlotte Church and comedian Nish Kumar had earlier pulled out of appearing at the event.

In a statement on her social media channels, Church said she had taken part in the boycott “in solidarity with the people in Palestine and in protest of the artwashing and greenwashing that is apparent in this sponsorship.”

Fossil Free Books, the group that has led the campaign against Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the event, has demanded that the firm divest from companies “that profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide.”

More than 700 writers and publishing professionals have signed a statement by FFB concerning the Hay festival campaign.

Kumar shared the statement online in announcing the cancelation of his appearance.

An FFB organizer said: “Hay festival is right to listen to the concerns of hundreds of book workers who are working to create fossil-free and genocide-free festivals.

“Hay must now develop a fundraising policy that rules out any future sponsorship by companies that invest or profit from the fossil fuel industry, Israeli occupation, apartheid or genocide, and any other human rights abuses.”

Hay CEO Julie Finch said the festival’s decision to cancel the sponsorship deal with the firm was taken “in light of claims raised by campaigners and intense pressure on artists to withdraw.”

She added: “Our first priority is to our audience and our artists. Above all else, we must preserve the freedom of our stages and spaces for open debate and discussion, where audiences can hear a range of perspectives.”

Baillie Gifford began its relationship with the festival in 2016 as a principal sponsor. A spokesperson said: “It is regrettable our sponsorship with the festival cannot continue.”


Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

Updated 25 May 2024
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Saudi’s ‘Norah’ receives the Special Mention accolade at Cannes

DUBAI: Saudi film “Norah,” starring actress Maria Bahrawi, this week received the Special Mention accolade, which recognizes films for outstanding achievements, at the 77th Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard awards.

The cast and crew, accompanied by director Tawfik Al-Zaidi, stepped onto the stage to accept the accolade in front of a full house.

The film, shot entirely in AlUla, is set in 1990s Saudi Arabia when conservatism ruled and the professional pursuit of all art, including painting, was frowned upon. Besides Bahrawi, the movie also stars Yaqoub Al-Farhan and Abdullah Al-Satian. It follows the story of Norah and failed artist Nader as they encourage each other to realize their artistic potential in rural Saudi Arabia.

“Norah” had its official screening at the festival on Thursday, becoming the first film from the Kingdom to screen as part of the official calendar at the event.

The movie was backed by the Red Sea Fund — one of the Red Sea Film Foundation’s programs — and was filmed entirely in AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia with an all-Saudi cast and a 40 percent Saudi crew.

Un Certain Regard’s mission is to highlight new trends in cinema and encourage innovative cinematic works.

Chaired by Canadian actor, director, screenwriter and producer Xavier Dolan, the jury included French Senegalese screenwriter and director Maimouna Doucoure, Moroccan director, screenwriter and producer Asmae El Moudir, German-Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps, and American film critic, director and writer Todd McCarthy.

Chinese director Guan Hu’s “Black Dog” won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section.

Marking Guan’s debut at Cannes, the film follows a former convict who forms an unexpected bond with the titular animal while clearing stray dogs in his remote hometown on the edge of the Gobi Desert.

The jury prize was awarded to “The Story of Souleymane,” directed by Boris Lojkine, marking his return to the festival after a decade since his 2014 feature “Hope.”

The film portrays the journey of a Guinean food delivery man who must create a compelling narrative for his asylum application interview in Lyon within a two-day timeframe.


Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

Updated 25 May 2024
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Hollywood’s Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit ‘Bad Boys’ red carpet in Riyadh

RIYADH: Cameras flashed and crowds cheered as Will Smith and Martin Lawrence hit the red carpet at Roshn Front’s VOX Cinema in Riyadh on Friday night to mark the fourth installment of the “Bad Boys” film franchise.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die” arrives 30 years after Mike Lowrey and Marcus Burnett, played by Smith and Lawrence, respectively, teamed up as the infamous buddy cops.

The latest film, exclusively in cinemas on June 6, shows how the characters have changed over the years.

“Their backs have gotten weaker, and their knees hurt more,” Smith said jokingly.

“Part of what we wanted to do with the franchise is to have the characters grow in an age-appropriate way,” he told Arab News.

“We are trusting that the audience wants to grow with us, wants to go with us, and wants to follow the natural progression of life and what these characters would be going through.”

The film continues to mix action, drama and comedy, but also allows the characters to grow and develop spiritually.

“The core of the movie is about friendship, love, and family,” Smith said.

“And would you ride or die for your partner?” Lawrence added.

The film builds on the success of the third installment, “Bad Boys For Life,” released in 2020, with the directorial duo for the latest production, Bilall Fallah and Adil El-Arbi,  reportedly inspired by video games.

Lawrence said the “top notch” directors were great to work with, and inspired the actors to “come up with magic.”

Smith added: “It’s interesting working with non-American directors; there’s such a different perspective… You know, they were (young) when the first movie came out, so there’s such a reverence for the original films. They’re bringing that energy, but they also want to put their signature on it. Energetically, it was fun to work with them, and also their openness to the spirituality of the film was also refreshing.”

Action films, whether “Mission Impossible” or the more recent “Monkey Man,” have enjoyed a revival in recent years, and both actors believe the genre will always have a place in the industry.

“The physical wars of humanity represent the inner wars that we go through. So, I think human beings are always going to like watching a good visualized external battle that they can relate to,” Smith said.

“We all know internally that life is kind of a series of ordeals. How do you manage these ordeals and put things back together? And I think that this movie is a comedic look at two people trying to be friends, surviving ordeals together, which changes them without life breaking their relationship. It’s like a standard bromance.”

With the film premiere taking place in Saudi Arabia’s capital, both stars expressed their excitement over initiatives underway in the Kingdom.

Smith said: “I performed at Soundstorm and everything is brand new. The energy of 40 and 50-year-old people in Saudi is like the energy of 20 and 30-year-old people in America.

“It’s like there is this powerful sense of being on the cusp of the future. It’s showing up in music, it’s showing up in art, it’s showing up in architecture, and hopefully shows up at the cinema tonight.”


Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 

Updated 24 May 2024
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Dave Chappell says support for Gaza war is result of ‘antisemitism in the West’ at Abu Dhabi show 

DUBAI: US comedian Dave Chappelle performed to a packed audience at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena on Thursday as part of Abu Dhabi Comedy Week, where he also addressed the war in Gaza.

“What is happening in Gaza is a direct result of antisemitism in the West,” he said on stage.

“If you are in America, the best thing you can do is to make American Jews feel safe, feel loved and supported so they can know they don’t have to support a country that is committing genocide just to feel safe,” he added. 

Chappelle previously slammed the Israeli bombing of Gaza, as well as the US support for it, at a show in Boston in October.

According to people in attendance, an audience member asked Chappelle to shut up, which sparked a heated response from the comedian.  

“You can’t take tens of billions from my country and go kill innocent women and children and tell me to shut the f--- up,” he said, according to the Wall Street Journal.  

Some members of the crowd began chanting “free Palestine,” to which Chappelle replied: “You are damn right, free Palestine.”  


World celebrities hit red carpet at Saudi-backed amfAR gala

Updated 24 May 2024
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World celebrities hit red carpet at Saudi-backed amfAR gala

  • Red Sea International Film Festival sponsors for fourth year
  • Demi Moore was host, which Elizabeth Taylor held in 1993

DUBAI: Some of the world’s biggest stars, in the French Riviera for the Cannes Film Festival, made appearances on Thursday at the 30th annual amfAR gala as Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival took on the role of presenting sponsor for the fourth consecutive year. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by amfAR (@amfar)

Among those in attendance were Demi Moore, Michelle Yeoh, Heidi Klum, Kelly Rowland, Andie MacDowell, Diane Kruger, Colman Domingo, Michelle Rodriguez, Winnie Harlow, Robin Thicke, Diplo, Paris Jackson, Petra Nemcova, Karolina Kurkova, Natasha Poly, and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by amfAR (@amfar)

The RSIFF’s CEO Mohammed Al-Turki and chairwoman Jomana Al-Rashid were also present.

The American Foundation for AIDS Research, or AmfAR, is dedicated to the support of AIDS research, prevention, education and advocacy. It has raised nearly $900 million since 1985.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by amfAR (@amfar)

Demi Moore, whose film “The Substance” caused a stir at Cannes, hosted this year’s gala, a role launched by Elizabeth Taylor in 1993.

The red carpet at the Hotel du Cap, Eden Roc, was awash with models, actors, singers and fashion designers as well as plenty of festival movers and shakers.

A few celebrities opted for gowns by Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad including German model Toni Garrn, sports commentator Alex Scott and Brazilian model Thayna Soares.

Garrn wore a purple beaded strapless gown with scalloped edges and spider web-like details, while Scott was adorned with a rose gold off-the-shoulder sheer tulle beaded gown, and Soares opted for a hooded gold beaded short dress with a plunging neckline and embroidered tassels.

German model Kim Dammer dazzled on the red carpet in a glamorous halter-neck black gown, intricately embroidered with geometric shapes by Lebanese couturier Rami Kadi.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Kim Dammer (@kimdammer)

Lebanese designer Nicolas Jebran was championed by Turkish actress Hande Ercel, who wore a black gown adorned with red and blue beads and featuring a plunging neckline.

Egyptian actress Yasmine Sabri was also in attendance, wearing a sparkly silver dress by Lebanese designer Jean Pierre Khoury. The dress featured thousands of mirrored tube beads hand-sewn onto a corseted silhouette, according to the designer.