VENICE: Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s latest effort, “The Perfect Candidate,” which competed for the top Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival this year, is set in a town close to Riyadh and the ease of working on home ground clearly shows in the work.
Like her first film “Wadjda,” “The Perfect Candidate” is also about defiance, this time it is a young doctor, Maryam (Mila Alzahrani). She is bent on furthering her career, but when things do not go her way after a missed opportunity to fly to Dubai for a medical conference, she decides to contest the local municipal election. She feels she could at least get the broken road to her clinic repaved — saving those who travel there, especially in emergencies. Earlier, a clear display of her grit is visible when she coaxes an elderly man into letting her treat him. At home too, her two reluctant sisters Sara and Selma come around to helping Maryam when she begins her campaign.
Haifaa’s work may be a rather simplistic way of examining the age-old impediments many women face. But one cannot miss the tongue-in-cheek approach she takes. Beginning with a shot of Maryam driving a car, the movie shows her emerging from behind a curtain during the campaign to chastise unruly men. Narrated with wonderful subtlety, “The Perfect Candidate” also has a perfect actress in Mila, who without being dramatic gives us a taste of a woman’s true power.
Actor Waleed Zuaiter: ‘For the first time, I have a real, genuine voice’
The BAFTA-nominated actor on the frustrations of typecasting and the joys of ‘Baghdad Central’
Updated 29 July 2021
DUBAI: The road to success is rockier than most care to admit. Even years past that first big break, the life of an actor is often a stop-and-start existence, with work drying up when you need it most.
In 2011, Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter —now one of the most acclaimed Arab actors in the world having secured a BAFTA nomination in 2021 for his starring role in “Baghdad Central” — was experiencing one of those lulls. The big roles weren’t coming and it was affecting him more than he let on.
It had only been two years since he starred opposite George Clooney in “The Men who Stare at Goats,” and here he was, a family to take care of, wondering whether he should continue pursuing his dream or give up acting entirely.
It was then that he got a call from the creators of a new series called “Homeland.”
“I remember, ‘Homeland’ came around (at a time when) we couldn't pay our rent. It's as simple as that,” Zuaiter tells Arab News.
They wanted him to play a terrorist. It was something he really didn’t want to do.
Earlier in his life, Zuaiter had never imagined he would be viewed as an outsider in America. Born in the US, he moved with his family to Kuwait and at the age of five, growing up in the Gulf, he had no concept of himself as ‘different’ in any way, attending an American school with a diverse array of friends and interests.
“I never grew up with real racism. (Kuwait) was a small country. My dad's best friend was Sudanese, and so I had no concept of a separation between races. I had friends from all over, and we were listening to hard rock and heavy metal like AC/DC and Iron Maiden,” says Zuaiter.
Zuaiter had a sense of himself, but the dream of becoming an actor meant to him — as it does to most actors — the ability to become anyone. It wasn’t until he got into the industry that he realized that ‘becoming anyone’ wasn’t really on the cards for Arabs — that they tended to be put into a very small box, even if it’s sometimes a box made with the best of intentions.
“When I came into acting, I didn't see it as, ‘I'm originally Arab, I have an Arabic name, I should only be up for Arab roles.’ But that's kind of how the industry works here. Even if you're like me, and you don't speak with an accent, and you're American. The industry thought, ‘Oh, this is a very hot topic, there's material that's coming out. Let's look for the people that can bring authenticity to it.’ There was a good intention there, but what winds up happening is you get pigeonholed. That was very frustrating for me,” says Zuaiter.
“I just wanted to make movies like Jon Favreau’s ‘Swingers.’ Those are the kinds of roles and stories that I'm interested in playing. But the TV roles I was offered were terrorists.”
Zuaiter took the role in “Homeland,” and while the experience ended up being a positive one, as Zuaiter was able to imbue the menacing role with nuance, depth and humanity, in a space that allowed him to do that, it wasn’t where he ultimately wanted to be. The producers were so impressed that they asked him to come back as another character. This time, he refused. He knew what he needed next, and it was a story that came from the Arab world rather than gazing at it from afar.
So Zuaiter got in touch with an old friend, Hany Abu Assad, the acclaimed Palestinian director behind “Paradise Now,” whom he had met years earlier.
“A mutual friend said to me, ‘You should get in touch with Hany, because he's written something that's really, really great.’ I called him, and he said ‘Yes, and I actually wrote a role for you in this.’”
Zuaiter would end up doing more than lending his acting talents. He got together his Palestinian family and friends and they made the film — 2013’s “Omar” — using their own capital. The film earned an Oscar-nomination, one of only two Palestinian feature-length films in history to have been nominated.
“Essentially, I raised the whole budget, I brought on my brothers, and they helped bring in some other investors. Hany had that same ambition of ‘Let's get our own people to invest in us.’ And that’s what we did,” Zuaiter explains. “Around 95 percent of the investment for Omar was Palestinian private equity, with another 5 percent from Dubai. And we're very thankful for it. It was rewarding on so many levels.”
The experience would embolden Zuaiter, allowing him to enter the next phase of his career, working across genres and continents until he was finally able to land the biggest role of his career, the lead in a prestige TV drama that portrayed Iraq as Hollywood never had before — “Baghdad Central,” now streaming on Starzplay Arabia.
“What did this show give me? It gave me a voice. I learned to trust myself. I learned so much about the craft, so much about responsibility. For the first time, I had a real, genuine voice from the very first rehearsals, and I learned how to wield it. And to do that playing an Arab hero — not a terrorist — was such an honor, especially because we very rarely get to see it,” he says.
Zuaiter was also struck by the show’s ability to not only amplify the voices of those that are so often marginalized, but to do so while also making the Iraqi characters’ American and British foils three-dimensional as well, giving the show a richness that it would not otherwise have had.
The experience helped turn Zuaiter into the leader that he never knew he could be, both on screen and off. He has now founded a production company with his wife Joana, whom he credits with saving his career again and again, called FlipNarrative.
“So much of our identity as a company is the embodiment of who we are. Our mission is to amplify the voice of underrepresented and historically misrepresented voices around the world, starting with a focus on stories coming out of the Middle East,” Zuaiter says. “We’re a global mission-based company, because we realize there’s a global audience out there and we have always felt like insider-outsiders, allowing us to bridge those borders and make those connections.”
FlipNarrative has already announced six projects from across the Arab world. But first Zuaiter’s tackling another dream, a pure actor’s dream — playing someone totally outside his own lived reality. As the villain in the upcoming second season of British crime drama “Gangs of London” he won’t be an Arab at all, he’ll be playing a Georgian. It’s an experience he’s already reveling in.
“I just want to expand the types of roles that I play. I want a sense of play. They said, ‘Listen, if you want to play him as Palestinian, we can do that’. I said, ‘No, I played enough Palestinian gangsters. I would love to play a Georgian gangster, That's exactly why I'm an actor,’” he says. “Hopefully, there’ll be more of those roles. I just want to be free.”
Singer Sahar Ajdamsani unites 11 global singers for pandemic track
Updated 28 July 2021
DUBAI: Singer Sahar Ajdamsani is set to release her new song “Quarantine World,” which she performed with 10 international artists, on July 31, she revealed to Arab News.
The singer and musician wrote the lyrics to the song about the COVID-19 pandemic in 11 languages: Farsi, Arabic, English, German, Kurdish, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Hindi and Greek.
“I wrote the lyrics in one day… it was like a miracle,” she told Arab News. “My mother language is Persian. I know English, I know German and I know a little bit of Arabic. For the other languages, I used grammar books and dictionaries.”
Each portion of the song was then performed by international singers in their native tongue.
Ajdamsani started working on the song in September 2020. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, each artist recorded their part of the song in the country they are based, making this a global collaborative effort.
The artists featured are Rodion Gazmanov from Russia, Jyotica Tangri from India, Karwan Kamil from Kurdistan, Ammar Alazaki from Yemen, Nasos Papargyropoulos from Greece, Bernd Kieckhäben from Germany, Flora Fishbach from France, Erica De Matteis from Italy, Jessica Lynn from the US and Luis Fernando Borjas from Venezuela.
Ajdamsani, who is the producer, director and project manager, also plans to release a music video for “Quarantine World” later this year.
Ajdamsani, who studied archaeology, started writing poems at the age of eight and says she faced hurdles when it came to persuading her family to accept her chosen career.
“Everyone told me not to study music. (People) don’t care about cultural heritage, and it made me really sad and I could do nothing about it. So, (I said) goodbye to archaeology and decided to just focus on music,” she explained.
After the release of “Quarantine World,” she is planning to move to Germany to continue her career.
Three Arab films set to premiere at Venice Film Festival
Updated 28 July 2021
DUBAI: The Venice International Film Festival unveiled a starry lineup of world premieres for September, including three films from the Arab world.
“Amira” by Mohamed Diab is set to play in the Horizons section and is a coming-of-age drama shot in Jordan, but set in Palestine.
“Costa Brava” is Lebanese director Mounia Akl's debut work and pairs Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri with Lebanese actress and director Nadine Labaki.
Finally, “Republic of Silence” by Diana El-Jeiroudi is a personal account of the director’s childhood in Syria and, 40 years on, her exile in Berlin.
The films will premiere alongisde international titles, including Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, and Ridley Scott’s medieval drama “The Last Duel,” featuring Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver.
The oldest film festival in the world is kicking off its 78th edition Sept. 1 on the Lido with the premiere of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Madres paralelas,” starring Penelope Cruz. “Spencer” and “Madres paralelas” are among 21 features premiering as part of the official competition, which has often helped guide eventual Oscar best picture nominees and even winners.
French-Algerian singer Lolo Zouai performs new single on Vevo CTRL
Updated 26 July 2021
DUBAI: This week, French-Algerian singer Lolo Zouai performed her latest single “Galipette” on Vevo CTRL, Vevo’s performance series that highlights both emerging and established musicians making an impact on the industry.
During the live session, the Brooklyn-based artist began singing her new hit while holding an oversized blue teddy bear before tossing it aside when the beat dropped.
She joins other artists such as French Montana, Common, Lil Baby and Giggs, who have all stepped up to the mic in Vevo’s online musical series.
“Really proud of how this came out,” she wrote, sharing a clip of the performance on Twitter.
The 26-year-old’s live session comes just a couple of weeks after she dropped the electrifying official music video for “Galipette.”
Wild and disruptive, the clip is directed by Amber Grace Johnson and is a visual trip, featuring the artist boxing underwater — Zouai admits she trained for almost two months before to make sure she was in good shape for this scene — crashing a mattress store and a synchronized dance routine performed by the UCLA champion gymnastics team.
With lyrics in both French and English, the track is a reminder of the artist’s rich cultural roots.
It has been a busy few months for the rising star, who released her debut album “High Highs to Low Lows” in 2019, appeared in global campaigns for Coach shot by Juergen Teller and became a face of Tommy Hilfiger and Adidas France’s new Superstar campaign all in one year.
And it appears that the singer isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
This year seems to be just as promising for the artist, whose highly anticipated second album is on its way and who is also set to open up for British crooner Dua Lipa on her “Future Nostalgia” European tour.
Pakistani-Indian music label plans joint release every month
Tarish Music formed this year to bring together subcontinental artists
Latest track featuring stars Atif Aslam and Sajal Aly crossed 2.4 million views since release
Updated 26 July 2021
ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani-Indian music label behind Atif Aslam’s most recent hit said it is planning to release collaborations every month bringing together artists from Pakistan and India — two neighboring countries that have been locked in enmity for the past seven decades.
While relations between Pakistan and India have been tense since the partition of the British-ruled subcontinent into Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India in 1947, the independent music record label, Tarish Music, seeks to create a bridge between them by bringing together artists from both countries.
The label was established earlier this year by producers Omer Ahmad and Tarun Chaudhary.
“The plan is to release 12 songs a year with six singers from India and six from Pakistan,” the label's Pakistani co-owner, Ahmed, said in a recent interview. “We’ll release a song every month.”
Their latest track, “Rafta Rafta,” which features Pakistani stars — singer Aslam and actress Sajal Aly — was released on Wednesday on Eid Al-Adha.
Shot in Pakistan’s scenic mountainous northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, “Rafta Rafta” was written by Indian singer and songwriter Raj Ranjodh and Pakistani director Hassam Baloch.
Having crossed 1 million views on the day of release, the song has now been listened to more than 2.4 million times on YouTube and is now the platform’s third top trending piece.
“It was an amazing experience working with Atif Aslam, everyone knows how loved he is in the subcontinent,” Ahmad said. “In terms of music, he always comes up with something fresh, innovative and different. His vocal skills are on another level.”
“It has been a truly delightful experience overall.”