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.


‘Khusouf Al-Ard’ — The long-awaited return of Hayajan

‘Khusouf Al-Ard’ — The long-awaited return of Hayajan. (Supplied)
Updated 17 January 2019
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‘Khusouf Al-Ard’ — The long-awaited return of Hayajan

  • Jordan-based indie-pop band 'Hayajan' has released a new album
  • The majority of tracks on “Khusouf Al-Ard” fall into one of two categories: Upbeat funky pop or slower synth-led ballads

DUBAI: It’s been more than five years since “Ya Bay,” the debut album from Jordan-based indie-pop band Hayajan, was released. Frontman Alaa Wardi was already hugely popular for his online videos of layered a capella covers, but in the years since he has become a genuine online phenomenon with almost a million YouTube subscribers and two solo albums to his name.
Wardi, and his voice, naturally, loom large over Hayajan’s recently released sophomore album “Khusouf Al-Ard.” But it would be a mistake to see this record as ‘Alaa Wardi plus musicians.’ Guitarists Odai Shawagfeh (who also plays with El Morabba3) and Mohammed Idrei, bassist Amjad Shahrouh, and drummer Hakam Abu Soud are equally responsible for Hayajan’s impressive sonic soundscapes.
The majority of tracks on “Khusouf Al-Ard” fall into one of two categories: Upbeat funky pop or slower synth-led ballads. Often, though, those pop tracks have pessimistic lyrics at odds with the bouncy, foot-tapping feel of the instrumentation.
In “Zubalah,” for example, Wardi warns a Martian newly arrived on earth to leave again ASAP because the planet is “trash” and “There is no hope for a better future.” On “Al-Ghabah,” he tells a tale of a bullying animal who becomes king of the jungle and burns it to the ground to quell an uprising, leaving himself ruler of nothing. A fable that could be relevant to any of the world’s ‘strongmen’ rulers.
Throughout the record Wardi shows his vocal chops not just on the top-line melodies, but with great choices of harmonies. The rhythm section is super-tight and the crystalline, angular guitar riffs are often instant earworms. Many of the tracks use the old ‘slow build to crescendo’ trick to great effect. “Kbirna” — a nostalgic ballad that employs Imogen Heap-style Vocoder effects — in particular culminates in the kind of soaring soundtrack-friendly climax that Sigur Ros seemed to have made their own in the Noughties.
The one bum note on the record is “Jibna Al-Eid,” in which Wardi’s requests for us all to come together cross the line into saccharine simplicity (as does the music). The result being a track that sounds like the kind of bad festive charity single usually accompanied by a video of the assembled vocalists grinning unconvincingly at each other.
Still, the rest of the album makes up for that misstep. Along with “Kbirna,” opening track “Yalla Bina” is a high point — driving, funky rhythms interspersed with staccato guitar stabs and a vibe reminiscent of French band Phoenix.
“Khusouf Al-Ard” is a confident, bold record that rewards the patience of the band’s fans.

Listen to the full album here: