DUBAI: Ali Al-Kalthami is trying not to let it all go to his head. But that’s easier said than done. As one of the three co-founders of the pioneering Saudi production company Telfaz11, Al-Kalthami is one of the pillars of the Kingdom’s film future. And, as we’ve seen over the last two months, that future is now.
In that short span of time, Telfaz11’s film “Raven Song” became the latest Saudi submission to the Academy Awards, their theatrical release “Sattar” became the highest-grossing Saudi film in history, and their latest feature, “Al Khallat+,” just became the first Netflix original film from Saudi.
“This is not overnight success, of course,” Al-Kalthami explains to Arab News. “It’s been 12 years of experience, 12 years of staying true to our stories, our philosophy, and our talents. We’re grateful that all of these projects are flourishing at the same time, but we’ve been working a long time for these things to take place, and we’re most proud that we got here by doing it the right way — doing it our way.”
We’re speaking to the writer/director/producer over Zoom and he doesn’t want to turn his camera on. It’s nothing personal, he explains, he’s just been filming for 12 hours straight, directing his upcoming theatrical feature “Night Courier,” a dark crime comedy, in Riyadh and he doesn’t want anyone to see him. His mood, however, belies his exhaustion — he’s still thrilled to gush about “Al Khallat+,” perhaps the Telfaz11 project that is closest to his heart.
The film is a continuation of the 22-episode anthology web series he created, which has amassed an astounding 1.5 billion views — a viewership far too big to qualify this as a ‘cult hit.’ Rather, Al-Kalthami and co., through their years of viral YouTube videos, have defined what Saudi Arabia’s mainstream entertainment looks like, building grassroots support with content that is wholeheartedly Saudi, made with a love and authenticity that allows them to push boundaries and subvert expectations, an aesthetic that is defined in “Al-Khallat.”
“From the start, I thought about doing a show that reflects the Saudi psyche. We wanted to capture everyday life in a way that that appeals to real people with engaging, well-crafted storytelling,” the creator explains.
While “Al Khallat+” tells a number of unrelated stories — two thieves crash a wedding to rescue their captured partner, a chef risks his restaurant trying to save his parent’s marriage, a mother searches for her husband who in turn is searching for his son in a nightclub — they each share a defining theme, one that Al-Kalthami and his collaborators discovered while holed up writing together during COVID-19 lockdowns.
“We went back to the 22 episodes we’d released on the internet, and wanted to figure out what worked and what didn’t as we started to work on the feature. And for some strange reason, we found that the stories that worked had something in common. In each of them, there was a character who had to hustle their way out of an issue brought on by society’s restrictions — and we don’t mean that negatively,” Al-Kalthami says.
“If you think about Saudi Arabia as a largely conservative society, that comes with a lot of rules that cause restraints on social life. Watching people hustle around those restraints becomes funny, because people can relate to those situations. We approach it with a very local mindset, and that allows Saudis to come along for the ride with us.”
While “Al Khallat” has a perspective purely his own, Al-Kalthami is always quick to give credit to his collaborators. If he is proud of anything personally, it’s that he’s created a platform which has allowed the Kingdom’s rising talent to thrive, from the myriad actors featured to the crew behind the camera, many of whom he has known for years.
“When I saw the first edit, I was very emotional. I was able to see in front of my eyes so clearly all the ideas that we’d written come to life through such great production. Fahad Alammari, the director, executed this so well, for example, and seeing all these actors — all of my friends — having fun bringing these characters to life is so rewarding,” says Al-Kalthami.
“From the beginning, I always wanted this to go somewhere beyond the internet. I had no other experience at the time, but I knew we would get there eventually. To have something that I created with my friends get picked up and treated as a franchise is very humbling.”
The challenge that Al-Kalthami now faces is to keep pushing forward and rewriting the template that he and his collaborators have made.
“As a writer, you often create this illusion around yourself when you create something successful. If you’re not careful, there’s a barrier that rises between you and reality. You have to force yourself not to believe the hype, to be true to who you are and true to the society you live in — and force yourself to keep living in it. You can’t isolate yourself and become carried away by your success,” he says. “You have to embrace life, and live like a normal person, and get inspired the right way. I’m always trying to force myself to stay grounded, which can be very tricky with this kind of success, especially when you’re in on the ground floor. You have to force yourself to continue to push the envelope, break boundaries and do great work, and you have to help build this industry the right way. That’s the responsibility of pioneers.”
While Al-Kalthami is usually focused on the future — committed to pushing himself as a writer and helping Saudi talent flourish both within his own projects and theirs — he does, occasionally, allow himself to look back and take stock of all he and Telfaz11 have accomplished over the last dozen years. Often, the emotion hits when he least expects it.
“Somebody sent me a TikTok video last week. In it, someone had put together pictures of all the Telfaz11 founders, filmmakers and family members, spanning every moment they could find from 2010 to 2022. They wrote that we were the voice of our local inner life, that we were filmmakers that Saudis believe in. It was just so poetic, so nice, and so innocent. It just really got to me,” Al-Kalthami says. “I was so overwhelmed, I could hardly control it. To know that a lot of people in Saudi feel we represent their voice, their authentic life, truly means everything.”