RIYADH: Halloween begins early with the nationwide premiere of the newest Saudi horror film “Junoon,” directed by brothers Maan B. and Yaser B., bringing a new meaning to the genre in the Kingdom’s film history.
On Wednesday, the premiere was held in Saudi Arabia’s biggest movie theater at the Boulevard Riyadh City, with 485 guests, media personalities, content creators and filmmakers in attendance. The event also featured hired extras playing bloodied zombie victims.
As a group of young creators set out on a mission to uncover the most supernatural activity at Suicide Rock in California, they enlist the help of an American vlogger. On their travels to Los Angeles, the fun adventure they thought they were embarking on takes them down a dark and dangerous path.
“The found footage style is very unique and kind of difficult to make. We spent three years making this movie… It’s a unique style, it has a lot of spontaneity in it, and it reflects reality. People always check their social media, and the characters they saw in the film reflect that,” co-director and star Maan B. told Arab News.
The film incorporates a Saudi-majority cast, including Maan B, Ida Alkusay, Saleh Alem, Sumaya Rida, as well as the Brazilian filmmaker Noan Ribeiro.
The story was inspired by Maan’s experience living in a building full of Vine influencers, whose job was to attract the highest level of views and social media engagement.
“This is where the idea was born, from chasing fame and what you would do for content. I saw it in front of my eyes; they would go wild and crazy. We took that concept, we blended it with horror, with jinn and a lot of aspects,” Maan said.
He credits the scriptwriters Marwan Mokbel and Pedro Paulo Araujo with bringing the concept into action.
At the time, the Logan Paul scandal dominated the news, a situation where a social media personality posted a video of a man who had hung himself at Suicide Forest in Japan, which was later criticized by the public.
Thus was born the character of a man who wants to be famous and will do anything to achieve that goal, no matter the cost.
“Our society, Arab societies especially, Muslim, they believe in supernatural (forces). It’s part of the culture, part of the religion, and part of everything. This is something planted in us at a young age. We wanted to incorporate supernatural horror more than something zombie or monster-related, things we don’t believe in. This is something in our culture that we might believe in more, so it’s more relatable to us,” Talha B., the consulting producer of “Junoon,” told Arab News.
While the public premiere date was not intended to be this close to Halloween, he admitted that it was a happy coincidence. “It’s almost too good to be true that this happened, so it’s in our benefit,” Talha said.
Alkusay, who portrayed Jiji in the film, said this was the first movie project she had taken part in at the time of filming. Seeing the work on the biggest screen in Saudi Arabia brought feelings of pride and accomplishment.
“It was a wonderful experience. We had a lot of difficulties — there were scorpions, spiders . . . We actually got to live all the events that we went through. The script was an optional type of thing; we just went rogue a lot,” Alkusay said.
“Even though in our culture we don’t celebrate Halloween, for all those people here who do, this is the perfect Halloween movie, and it’s made in Arabic as well,” she said.
The movie falls under this newly established local genre, preceded by other Saudi films such as the 2016 film Madayen, the 2018 short film “Don’t Go Too Far,” and the 2022 thriller “Kayan,” which premiered in theaters last month. Another movie, written by the GEA’s Chairman Turki Alalshikh, titled “The Cello,” wrapped up filming last year and is said to premiere in 2022.
“I think what makes (this film) special is that it’s not purely horror, there’s comedy and adventure and some thrillers. The found footage style in general makes it realistic, and this realism shocks or scares the audience. This is what I love about the movie,” co-director Yaser B. told Arab News.
Ultimately, the movie proves that Saudi creators have the talent and passion for taking on all film genres. With direct support for arts and entertainment from the government under the goals of Vision 2030, this film demonstrates only the beginning of Saudi filmmakers’ abilities.
“The first thing we need from the Saudi audience is to believe in Saudi films,” Yaser said.
His brother Talha seconded this: “They should believe more in Saudi stories and Saudi talent instead of giving all the talent or the money to (others). There is goodness in our people; there are stories, there is talent, so give them a chance to create.”
The film has toured multiple festivals, winning the prize for “Best feature film” at the Faten Hamama festival and “Best cinematography” at the NICE International Film Festival in France. It was also selected for the Malmo Arab film festival and the Red Sea International Film Festival.