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.


Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

‘People aren’t born hard and aggressive,’ says Jolie. ‘Something happens and you don’t feel safe.’ (Supplied)
Updated 21 October 2019

Maleficent, Angelina Jolie’s misunderstood sorceress, returns

LOS ANGELES: No one is born the villain. Not Lucifer in Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, not Arthur Fleck in Todd Philips’ recent release “Joker,” and certainly not Maleficent, whom Angelina Jolie brought to life in 2014. Unlike “Joker,” however, “Maleficent,” a reimagining of Disney’s classic “Sleeping Beauty” (1959), was an open-hearted film, showing not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more.

“We think of her as evil and dark, and we asked why, and went deeper,” says Jolie of the character. “Most women — most people — aren’t born with a certain hardness and aggression; something happens in your life where you lose trust, you don’t feel safe, and you start to fight and you protect yourself in a different way.”

“Maleficent” shows not only how the world can harden the pure of heart, but also how love can soften it once more. (Supplied)

In “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” the sequel set six years later, Maleficent hardly lives up to that title, but rumor would have it otherwise. The story of the ‘sleeping beauty’ Aurora (Elle Fanning) has spread across the land, painting Maleficent as the villain, rather than the one whose love saved her. Now, as Aurora plans to marry Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson), Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world.

“When you see a leader like (Ingrith), who is so angry, so hostile, and who believes that the only way to survive is to destroy the other… we make it very clear in this film that she’s afraid, she’s weak and she’s ignorant. That’s why she’s behaving that way and that’s why she’s wrong,” Jolie says. “It’s not political, it’s not trying to be, but if you’re happy about the way the film ends, and it feels right, I think that heads you in the right direction, and for children it gives a nice guide.”

In the film, Maleficent must meet the neighboring Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), who wishes to destroy Maleficent and her magical world. (Supplied)

While the film features a lot of violent spectacle, the inner conflict of the lead characters themselves is whether they are strong enough to resist becoming violent, rather than the inverse.

“That’s something that isn’t portrayed a lot on screen — a lot of princesses grew up and they said, ‘Well, we’re going to make her a strong princess, and we’re going to make her tough, so we’re going to make her fight!’ Is that what being a strong woman means? We’re going to have to have a sword and armor on and fight? Aurora can do that in a different way, in a pink dress. It’s beautiful that she keeps her softness and vulnerabilities as her strengths,” says Fanning.

Redefining the ‘strong woman’ character is not just about redefining strength, for Jolie. It’s about lifting women up without pushing men down.

Harris Dickinson plays Prince Phillip in Disney's live-action “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

“We show diverse types of women, but we have extraordinary men in the film,” she says. “I really want to press that point, because I think so often when a story is told of a ‘strong woman’ she has to beat the man, or she has to be like the man, or she has to somehow not need the man. We both very much need and love and learn from the men. I think that’s also an important message for young girls — to find their own power, but to learn from and respect the men around them.”

For Maleficent, those men include Conall and Borra (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ed Skrein respectively), both of whom are of the same race as her, cast out from the rest of the world. The two play out the conflict at the center of the film — whether the only path to peace is conflict, or whether diplomacy and goodwill can help.

Elle Fanning plays Aurora in “Maleficent.” (Supplied)

Ejiofor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for 2013’s “12 Years a Slave” says he was captivated by the film’s themes.

“It was an interesting conversation about leadership — what self-sacrifice means in terms of leadership — and has a real engagement with optimism and positivity in terms of leadership and what is beneficial to most people, and what part leadership plays in that. I felt there was something very rich in the script,” he says.

Even Prince Philip was built to break stereotypes and challenge perspectives, according to Dickinson.

Angelina Jolie brought Maleficent to life in 2014. (Supplied)

“I saw him as this young man trying to figure out how to find his voice and challenge the perspectives of his parents and rule in a more inclusive way,” he says. “(Director Joachim Rønning) and I spoke about him as not just the archetype of a Disney prince who comes along and saves the day.”

While Skrein’s Borra at first seems to be the cliched hawkish brute, he too turns out to be more openminded than he appears.

“The love and understanding of Conall’s message really resonated more, and we do see Borra go on a real arc or journey of his moral stance,” Skrein says. “I think that comes from Conall and that’s why we have to try and preach empathy and peace over violence as much as we can.”