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

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.


Cannes announces lineup for a festival canceled by COVID

Updated 04 June 2020

Cannes announces lineup for a festival canceled by COVID

From an empty movie theater in Paris, organizers of the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday announced the films that would have played at there in May had it not been canceled by the pandemic.

The selections were an exercise in what-might-have-been for Cannes, the international French festival that for the last 73 years has been one the most prestigious and glitzy annual gatherings of cinema. Cannes, originally slated for mid-May, initially considered postponing to July but ultimately gave up on a 2020 edition.

Hearing what would have premiered on the Crosiette this year offered a tantalizing picture of a canceled Cannes. Two films by “12 Years a Slave” filmmaker Steve McQueen — “Mangrove” and “Lover’s Rock” — had been headed to Cannes, said festival director Thierry Fremaux, as was Wes Anderson's “The French Dispatch” and Pete Docter’s Pixar film “Soul.”

Fremaux announced 56 movies that were selected from a record 2,067 submissions that poured in despite the health crisis. “I can see that film is alive and kicking,” said Fremaux, sitting on the stage of the UGC Normandie cinema in Paris alongside Cannes’ president, Pierre Lescure.

The selection announcement, usually made in an April press conference before teeming throngs of international journalists, was instead presented during a TV interview that streamed online and aired on Canal Plus. Lescure noted the unprecedented situation had some upside: It was much quieter and Fremaux didn’t have to fend off questions from various nations whose films were overlooked.

Fremaux didn’t distinguish between which films had been slated for its main selection, in which some 20-25 films compete for the Palme d’Or, the Un Certain Regard sidebar or out-of-competition premieres. Some films, he noted, opted to wait until next year’s Cannes.

The announced selection included 16 films directed by women, an increase of two from 2019. Cannes, where only one female filmmaker (Jane Campion) has ever won the Palme, has often come under criticism for not selecting more movies directed by women.

Spike Lee, whose previous film “BlacKKKlansman” premiered at Cannes, had been set to preside of the jury that would select Cannes' top prize. Last year, it went to Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” which went on to win best picture at the Academy Awards.

“This time, everyone will be able to give his or her own Palme d’Or,” Fremaux said.

Also among the selections: Francois Ozon’s “Summer of ’85”; Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers”; Hong Sang-soo’s “Heaven”; Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round”; Maïwenn’s “DNA”; and Sang-ho Yeon’s “Peninsula.”

The films will be able to brand themselves as part of the official 2020 Cannes Film Festival selection. If accepted elsewhere, the films can still have their premieres at other fall festivals — should they happen — like those in Toronto, Telluride, New York and San Sebastian. The Cannes label will be particularly helpful for films from lesser-known filmmakers; 15 of the films announced Wednesday were directorial debuts.