Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
(From left) Mahmoud Dagher, Ali El-Arabi and Fawzi Qatleesh with the award for Best Arab Documentary Film at El Gouna Film Festival in 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 01 July 2022

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film

Award-winning filmmaker Ali El-Arabi finds his voice through film
  • The award-winning Egyptian filmmaker on his moving refugee doc ‘Captains of Zaatari’ and future plans

DUBAI: Nearly 10 years ago, Egyptian filmmaker Ali El-Arabi, the award-winning documentarian behind “Captains of Zaatari,” which hits Netflix this month, made a promise. He was in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the largest temporary settlement of displaced Syrians in the world, and a teenaged boy he had just met named Fawzi Qatleesh asked if he could speak his truth to the camera.

“On the first day I arrived, he asked me, ‘Ali, can you film me? I want to say something to the people outside of this camp.’ The second he started to talk, I said to myself, ‘This boy is my hero,’” El-Arabi tells Arab News.

Qatleesh had dreams. He wanted to become a professional footballer. More importantly, he wanted the people outside those fences to know the truth of the refugee experience. He didn’t want pity, he told El-Arabi, he only wanted opportunity. 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

As the film hits Netflix this month in the Middle East, El-Arabi is overjoyed. Finally, after seven years of filming and a years-long global festival tour, his promise is fulfilled.

“I lost a lot of money, to be honest, because I refused to sell the film to a smaller platform that might limit its reach. That was for Fawzi — because of that promise I made him on the first day. I told him to say what was in his heart, and I would tell everyone in the world his story. That has been my mission ever since,” says El-Arabi.

El-Arabi knew what it felt like to have a message that people needed to hear. He was himself once an athlete, a dedicated and successful martial artist, even winning Egypt’s national kickboxing championship. During the Egyptian revolution, however, El-Arabi abandoned any future he might have in sport, instead turning towards filmmaking.




“Captains of Zaatari” is on Netflix. (Supplied)

“I started to feel I had something to say, but I couldn’t say it with my voice,” he says. “I realized filmmaking was the way I could say it. I started making small documentaries about what was happening and screening them in the street. One day, the police came and I took my film and I ran. That made me realize the power of what I could say with a camera.” 

El-Arabi left Egypt, partnering with the ZDF TV channel to film documentaries in war zones including Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. War reporting, however, was unfulfilling, as it so often stripped away the humanity of those caught in its horrors.

“Refugees and the victims in the war were all just numbers. It was the news, and the news just wanted statistics,” El-Arabi says. “I couldn’t process it that way. These were people, and I knew there was more going on than the news could report.” 

After meeting Qatleesh and his friend Mahmoud Dagher — the two boys he would ultimately follow from the refugee camp in Jordan all the way to an elite soccer program in the Gulf — El-Arabi filmed them for seven years before whittling their story down to a scant 75 minutes, resulting in a story that showed their incredible journey while also refusing to gloss over the realities of refugee life.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

Nonetheless, the film is bursting with hope, and El-Arabi’s proudest moments have come showing the film not to the outside world, as he originally intended, but to those in similar circumstances to Dagher and Qatleesh when he first found them.

“We screened it at a refugee camp in Lebanon, and person after person came up to me to tell me that, for the first time, they could think about the future. They said the film showed them that they could not only have dreams, they could achieve them. I will never forget that,” El-Arabi says.

Since its limited release in 2021, the film has already transformed the lives of both young men whose story it follows.

“They’re stars now. They feel it. Even some football clubs have watched the film and want to give them opportunities,” El-Arabi says. “The government of Jordan and the leaders in the camps respect them. Children in the camps are looking to them as role models. I speak to them all the time, and it’s wonderful to watch, even though they also feel the pressure from their families that they need to start delivering on their promise as soon as possible, and transforming their situation too.”




A still from El-Arabi's upcoming project “Ashish’s Journey.” (Supplied)

While he may be done telling their story, El-Arabi has been hard at work over the last few years on another — “Ashish’s Journey” — about the upcoming FIFA World Cup. It is inspired by a man who approached him in Qatar as he filmed “Captains of Zaatari.” 

“An Indian man came to me one day and asked if he could take a picture with me. He thought I was a soccer player, and he told me he wanted to send the picture back to his family,” El-Arabi explains. “He told me, ‘I came here to watch the World Cup. But I didn’t have money to come, so I came here to work now, so that I could meet the famous players one day. I thought you were one of them.’”

The more time El-Arabi spent with the man, the more his innocent aspirations intrigued him, leading him to not only film Ashish in Qatar, but to follow him and his family back to India, even adding fictional elements (with Ashish playing himself) inspired by the classic French satirical novella “Candide” to the docu-film.

“He’s actually a very good actor,” El-Arabi says.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Ali Elarabi (@alyelarabi)

While El-Arabi knows that he will finish filming later this year at the World Cup, chronicling Ashish’s adventures during the games, he does not plan to rush the film out in the immediate aftermath of the event. 

“I want to savor the material. I don’t want to rush it for a big festival. I love working on this film. I don’t want to kill the process — kill everything I’ve put into this — just to have something done fast,” he says. 

El-Arabi has other projects in the works as well. He’s currently producing a film about Algeria and discussing producing an upcoming project with his best friend Mohamed Diab, the director of Marvel’s “Moon Knight.” Closest to his heart, though, is the fiction film he has in the works between Los Angeles and Egypt, inspired by both his own history in boxing and his relationship with his father. 

“We’re talking to major international stars (about) it,” he says. “It’s a story that takes a lot from my own experiences with my family, and nearly every time I pitch it to people they cry. One person I work closely with, as soon as I finished, said they had to leave room to call their father.”

While telling Arab stories will remain a key part of El-Arabi’s career moving forward, ultimately what drives him is not capturing his identity — it’s capturing his soul. 

“I will tell Arab stories, but I don’t think a lot about telling stories about the Arab world,” he says. “I think about humans. That’s all I’m interested in.”


US rapper Russ to perform at Usyk-Joshua rematch in Jeddah this month

US rapper Russ to perform at Usyk-Joshua rematch in Jeddah this month
Updated 10 August 2022

US rapper Russ to perform at Usyk-Joshua rematch in Jeddah this month

US rapper Russ to perform at Usyk-Joshua rematch in Jeddah this month
  • The 29 year old achieved 10 billion streams on Spotify and Apple Music without the backing of a major label and was listed in Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 list in 2019
  • He emerged during the 2010s from the Atlanta-area underground music scene, releasing dozens of independent singles and albums, all of which he made freely available to download

RIYADH: Rapper Russ Vitale is set to perform live at the world heavyweight title rematch between boxers Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk on Aug. 20 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Commonly known simply as Russ, the 29-year-old American rapper, singer, songwriter and author, who first performed in the Kingdom in 2019, lists other American rappers and the classic rock he listened to as a youngster among his inspirations.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by RUSS (@russ)

One of the most popular rappers in the world, he achieved 10 billion streams on Spotify and Apple Music without the backing of a major label, has performed sellout global tours, and was listed in Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 list in 2019.

Russ emerged during the 2010s from the Atlanta-area underground music scene, releasing dozens of independent singles and albums, all of which he made freely available to download. His mainstream breakthrough came in 2017 with the platinum-certified top 10 album “There’s Really a Wolf,” before he cracked the top five of the Billboard 200 with “Zoo” in 2018 and “Shake the Snow Globe” in 2020, followed by the release of companion albums “Chomp” and “Chomp 2.”

Most recently, he collaborated with Ed Sheeran for new single “Are You Entertained,” on which Russ switches between singing and rapping.

The heavyweight title rematch between Usyk and Joshua is considered one of the biggest in the history of the sport. When they met in September 2021 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, Usyk dominated the contest, earning a unanimous decision victory and three world heavyweight titles to become unified Heavyweight World Champion.


Forward cruising: How Riyadh’s skateboarding scene is developing

Forward cruising: How Riyadh’s skateboarding scene is developing
Updated 09 August 2022

Forward cruising: How Riyadh’s skateboarding scene is developing

Forward cruising: How Riyadh’s skateboarding scene is developing
  • Popularity of the sport growing amongst teenagers in the Kingdom’s capital
  • LocoSonix founder Safi Marroun: I see great potential in the sport as it’s becoming increasingly integrated into the Saudi culture

RIYADH: Sitting on the upper level of LocoSonix, a skate shop based in Riyadh, Saudi skateboarder Shareef Masarani is approached by a young girl. The mixture of excitement and shyness overwhelm her expressions as she presents a board she picked out from the shop.

“I just wanted to ask you, I am buying this board. Is it cool?” She wanted his input on buying her first ever skateboard after seeing he was at the shop through Instagram Live. 

“The Hydroponic is good, as a startup board, yeah … That’s actually a good choice,” he responded. 

The girl had found his account on Instagram one day, and later on met him at the Riyadh Boulevard skatepark. The coincidence inspired her to hop on her very own skateboard for the first time. 

Masarani has been a skater on and off for almost 20 years, beginning his journey at 15. After leaving his job as a chef to focus on growing the skate community in Saudi Arabia, he has become somewhat of a go-to resource for all things skateboard-related for many up-and-coming skaters, alongside his 11-person skate community Sandlifers.

Masarani went from pursuing skateboarding as a hobby while living in the US to becoming a learning resource and collaborating with big-name brands such as Vans and Mountain Dew.

One of his young client’s mothers called him one day, thanking him for his work. Not only were her daughter’s skills improving, but she became a more outward and confident person as a result. 

“Her personality developed. At the house, she’s a quiet kid, she doesn’t talk to anybody. Now, it gave her confidence and gave her a personality, she’s talking with the family. It changes people, it really does,” Masarani told Arab News. 

“When you learn a trick, you do things that you didn’t think you could do,” he said. “I’ve seen what it did to me, and I would love to kick start it here in the Middle East,” he said.

Masarani’s client, 15-year-old Reef Khalid Hassan, said her training helped her manage the tricks she aimed to master. His support inspired her to keep going. 

“Ever since I met him, he’s been telling me that I could be something … Masarani also helped me with explaining to me how skateboarding works, different tricks and how to think in the right mindset,” she told Arab News. 

“You need to know when to bail and when to commit,” he told her during a lesson. 

Hassan started skating on her own a few months back and has become one of the rising young stars in the Riyadh skate scene, according to Masarani.

“A few months ago, I used to need a little bit of help with a couple of tricks, so I got a month’s training, which helped me a lot,” she said. 

Her first two tricks were a revert and an ollie. “It felt really good, actually, because I tried for so long until I got it … Skating gives me something to look forward to because there are more tricks (to learn) every day,” she said. 

But the skate scene was not always this popular in Saudi Arabia. According to Masarani, only a few groups of people, including Sandlifers and some Filipino residents who had brought the practice from their country, were skating until 2020. 

That is when Al-Nakheel skatepark opened to the public. Slowly, more parks became accessible like the private Diriyah club and the purpose-built Riyadh Boulevard skatepark, which rents out gear on the spot.

As his following increases, Masarani has been using Instagram as a learning tool for others. He utilizes the app’s live feature as a platform to answer common questions that people have around the sport, or to demonstrate which of LocoSonix’s goods are best to purchase for your needs. 

“That’s my goal. I want people to be better than me,” he said.

Masarani is also a partner of LocoSonix, the only specialized skate shop in the Kingdom, and frequently shows off their newest gear. Walking into the active lifestyle store is like entering an art gallery. 

“I see great potential in the sport as it’s becoming increasingly integrated into the Saudi culture,” Safi Marroun, founder of LocoSonix, told Arab News.

“The moment you learn how to balance on a board and start to ride around with your own board, you have entered a new way of living. LocoSonix brings together the artist, the pro players, and those who want to just have fun on wheels.”

LocoSonix is planning to create skateparks to promote the sport in 2023.

Skateboarding has recently been legitimized with its recognition as an Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee, making its debut appearance at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

In the Kingdom, the Saudi Arabian Extreme Sports Federation recently concluded two rounds of skateboarding camps in Riyadh, with 111 participants. It also held its first two-day skateboarding and aggressive in-line skating competition that hosted 38 female and male participants.

“I see (the scene) becoming bigger, if people continue doing what they’re doing. Like anything, if they stay consistent with it, it’s only going to get bigger,” said Masarani.


Will the Middle East get its own version of ‘America’s Next Top Model’?

Will the Middle East get its own version of ‘America’s Next Top Model’?
Updated 09 August 2022

Will the Middle East get its own version of ‘America’s Next Top Model’?

Will the Middle East get its own version of ‘America’s Next Top Model’?
  • Local media reported that the regional edition will be called “Arabia’s Next Top Model” 
  • Read on for our picks of who we would like to see sit on the judging panel of the possible Middle Eastern version

DUBAI: A Middle Eastern franchise of “America’s Next Top Model” is in the works, according to local media reports.

Although official confirmation is yet to be made, local media reported that the regional edition will be called “Arabia’s Next Top Model.” The production team is reportedly looking for a well-known host and judges in the modeling and fashion industries. Read on for our picks for who we would like to see sit on the judging panel of the possible Middle Eastern version.

The hit US show, which premiered in May 2003, was created by US supermodel Tyra Banks, who also serves as an executive producer. It was developed by TV producer Ken Mok and writer Kenya Barris. 

In the show, aspiring female and male models compete against each other in a series of challenges in order to win career opportunities in the modeling industry.

More than 50 spinoffs of the show were released around the world, including “Germany’s Next Top Model,” “Asia’s Next Top Model,” “India’s Next Top Model” and others.

Arab News contacted various TV production houses affiliated with international iterations of the show, but none had responded at the time of publication.

Although the production house is yet to confirm the news, here are our picks for who we would like to see sit on the judging panel of the possible Middle Eastern version.

Mona and Huda Kattan

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Tyra Banks (@tyrabanks)

The powerful women behind Huda Beauty and perfume brand Kayali would be the perfect judges, although their camp has not made an official announcement about their potential involvement in the show.

Banks, who created “America’s Next Top Model,” did meet Mona at an event in Abu Dhabi in March 2022, and posted that she was “a true beauty.”

The pair previously starred in a Facebook reality show titled “Huda Boss.”

Shanina Shaik

Part Saudi model Shanina Shaik would give the show a healthy dose of star power. The former Victoria’s Secret model has posed for a number of fashion houses and has appeared in the pages of Vogue Arabia. Although her social media accounts feature no mention of a potential starring spot on the show, here’s to hoping we will see her in the Middle East soon.

Jessica Kahawaty

The Lebanese Australian model, entrepreneur and humanitarian would be an ideal judge given her history as Miss World Australia 2012. She has starred in campaigns for international fashion houses and is a red carpet and front row regular at events around the world.

Kris Fade

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Kris Fade (@krisfade)

The popular radio host is known for his sense of humor and would certainly lighten the atmosphere on the competitive show.

Amira Al-Zuhair

Saudi model Amira Al-Zuhair recently hit the runway for Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani and Lebanese couture label Georges Hobeika. The young star could be the ideal mentor for other up-and-coming models in the Middle East if she is picked to appear on the rumored show.

Elie Saab or Zuhair Murad

Elie Saab is a renowned Lebanese designer. (AFP)

Who better to handpick an up-and-coming model than the Arab world’s most famous designers? Elie Saab, Zuhair Murad, Georges Hobeika and Georges Chakra are all options for who we would like to see take a seat on the judging panel.


MBC Studios starts shooting Saudi Arabia’s ‘Rise of the Witches’ in NEOM

MBC Studios starts shooting Saudi Arabia’s ‘Rise of the Witches’ in NEOM
Updated 09 August 2022

MBC Studios starts shooting Saudi Arabia’s ‘Rise of the Witches’ in NEOM

MBC Studios starts shooting Saudi Arabia’s ‘Rise of the Witches’ in NEOM
  • 10-part series based on writer Osamah Almuslim’s fantasy bestsellers
  • ‘True homegrown production in front and behind the cameras’

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s MBC Studios announced this week that its production team has started shooting the Kingdom’s fantasy adventure “Rise of the Witches.”

The team is filming in NEOM, the smart city in northwest Saudi Arabia.

The 10-part series, based on the best-selling Saudi mythology books by Osamah Almuslim, is said to be the Kingdom’s biggest show to date that features a local cast and crew.

It is set in ancient Arabia and tells the story of a war between two rival witch covens.

The show stars actors Ida AlKusay and Sumaya Rida as the two lead witches.

The series is directed by Irish filmmaker Declan O’Dwyer and British director Craig Pickles.

The show, produced by “The Crash” (2013) producer Dominic Barlow and MBC Group’s Zeinab Abu Alsamh, is a Shahid Original and will be available on the streaming platform later this year.

“‘Rise of the Witches’ is a true homegrown production, and features recognizable and new faces, with talent both in front of and behind the cameras coming from our very own MBC Academy and MBC Talent hubs,” said Abu Alsamh, the general manager of MBC Studios KSA, in a statement.

“This series will no doubt make household names of the cast — this outstanding fantasy adventure is not one to be missed!” she added.


Saudi Arabia’s AlUla unveils 2022 calendar and announces new festival  

Saudi Arabia’s AlUla unveils 2022 calendar and announces new festival  
Updated 09 August 2022

Saudi Arabia’s AlUla unveils 2022 calendar and announces new festival  

Saudi Arabia’s AlUla unveils 2022 calendar and announces new festival  

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s historic city of AlUla on Tuesday announced the lineup of its key events and festivals taking place this year. 

Under the umbrella of AlUla Moments, the series of events will start from September and will see the return of the Kingdom’s music festival Azimuth, AlUla Wellness Festival and Winter at Tantora. 

The season will also introduce a new addition to the calendar, The Ancient Kingdoms Festival. 

Azimuth, the three-day-celebration of music, art and food, will feature a mix of international and Arab celebrities who will hit the stage during the Saudi National Day weekend from Sept. 22 to 24. 

The Wellness festival, which debuted in March this year, will take place after Azimuth from Sept. 29 to Oct. 16. It will be anchored by Five Senses Sanctuary – a purpose built spa, fitness and wellness retreat which will bring the world’s best practitioners together with local talent. 

The new event, the Ancient Kingdoms Festival, starts on Nov. 11 and will run until Nov. 27. 

It will bring the past into the present with experiences inspired by the significance of 7000 years of successive civilizations on the Arabian Peninsula.

Visitors will be able to discover the geological and historical significance that cities like  Khaybar, AlUla and Tayma have globally. 

The festival will also offer a series of music, arts and outdoor events at the key heritage sites of AlUla including the popular Hegra After Dark. 

This year’s Winter at Tantora, which will run from Dec. 21 to Jan. 21, will bring experiences like immersive arts, outdoor theater, high fashion and more.