DUBAI: Raed Alsemari’s career is just beginning, but the Riyadh-born filmmaker is already a part of Saudi Arabian history. In January 2019, Alsemari’s satirical short “Dunya’s Day” became the first locally made film to screen in a Saudi Arabian movie theater.
“When we shot the film, the ban on cinemas hadn’t even been lifted, and I never imagined that there would be cinemas in Saudi, let alone (that it would screen) in front of an audience in my hometown,” says Alsemari. “I’m still taking it in months later. We only found out the day after that it was the first, which was surreal.”
While the Riyadh screening of “Black Panther” in 2018 marked the reopening of Saudi cinemas after three decades and made headlines across the world, one could argue that Alsemari’s accomplishment was the bigger landmark, especially as the country embarks on a mission to establish a thriving cinema industry focused on developing homegrown talent.
Alsemari — who is currently finishing his Master’s degree at New York University under professors including Oscar-winner Spike Lee — always knew he wanted to tell stories, but, during his childhood in Riyadh, he didn’t really consider filmmaking to be a possibility.
“Growing up in Saudi, most of the DVDs we got were Hollywood films and European cinema,” he says. “I hadn’t really seen anything made by people from this part of the world until college. I studied literature, and, ironically, it took me going to Massachusetts to discover more film and literature from the Arab world.”
As he immersed himself in film, Alsemari was bothered by the portrayals of Arab and Muslim women in both international media and in the work of Arab filmmakers themselves.
“Often you see a two-dimensional narrative of victimhood or sainthood, and I wanted to develop a character who was far removed from that, who was flawed but fierce, as we put it early on,” he tells Arab News. “I also grew up watching films like ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Heathers’ — films with an irreverent tone and largely female cast. I had worked with a bunch of stand-up comedians and actors in Riyadh, and I hadn’t seen anything like that with women on screen.”
From there, Dunya was born. “Dunya’s Day,” which continues to fare well on the film-festival circuit with wins across the globe, tells the story of a young woman on the day of her graduation party in Riyadh, who will stop at nothing to achieve the elite social status she feels she deserves.
“We had generous access to this location that is private property. People have guest houses in the suburbs of Riyadh, but most of them aren’t really lived in; they’re used to entertain. The location was grand and befitting to a character of a certain class,” Alsemari explains.
“When you have that character and location, the world of graduation parties in Riyadh felt like a really natural subculture to explore — a world where graduation parties are at the level of the Met Gala, where veganism is trending, and I felt value in showing that world. There’s value in seeing nuance in that, as well, as we don’t typically see narratives that allow women of color or Arab women specifically to be unlikeable and still be the hero of the story, and still be worthy of the audience’s empathy,” he continues.
There was just one problem — Alsemari had never been invited to those sorts of parties.
“I grew up in Riyadh, and I have friends and family members who are ‘Dunyas’ of sorts. I can relate to the character, but the graduation party scene itself was a bit foreign,” he says. “I had to take a lot of time to listen to the film’s producers — who were all Saudi women — and to the cast themselves. It didn’t feel like research, it was listening to their stories and their insights, and making sure the production designer and cinematographer understood the look and feel not only of that world but of the storyline.”
Alsemari and his collaborators held open casting calls using WhatsApp and social media across Riyadh, but despite the opportunity the film presented they only managed to gather a small pool of talent for auditions.
“One of the reasons was that a lot of the young women were still worried about the social repercussions with their families of being on screen, as there was still a taboo, which limited our pool to around a dozen,” says Alsemari.
Of that dozen, Alsemari felt that none was right for the role of Dunya. Though talented, the actors played the role for laughs, judging Dunya and trivializing her actions rather than playing the role with respect for the character, he says. After watching his casting director Sara Balghonaim read with each of the actors, Alsemari had an idea — why not just cast Sara as Dunya?
“Sara was hesitant about whether she’d have the ability to pull it off, and there’s always fear in putting yourself out there to begin with,” Alsemari says. “Deciding to be an actor in any society can be scary, and when so few women have done it before it can be particularly intimidating. She needed some time and persuasion to agree, but I’m so thankful she did because her performance really does make the film.”
After completing filming and returning to New York, Alsemari excitedly brought an unfinished copy to his legendary professor, eager for the reaction of a man who himself has done so much for the portrayal of people of color on screen.
“It was surreal to have Spike Lee watching a short that you made in his office and telling you what he thinks. He laughed! He enjoyed it. He asked me what I was working on next and gave me feedback on some ideas. It was great to share the film with him. That was one of the earlier responses to the film — it hadn’t even been sound mixed or colored,” says Alsemari.
Dunya’s story will not stop here. Alsemari is now working on a feature-length film centered around Dunya’s wedding day.
“We’re still working on the script at the moment, but it’s going to be a different story. I’d like to make something that shares the same character, world and tone for a feature,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of potential in exploring and dramatizing a wedding in Riyadh, and the absurdities of being young and privileged and Saudi.”