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.


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”