DUBAI: Saudi film “Me & Aydarous” is set to kickstart its international festival tour at the Aspen Film Festival’s Shortsfest next month.
Written and directed by Sara Balghonaim, the film is set in the early 2000s in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh. It tells the story of a young woman who sneaks off for a date only to butt heads with her chaperoning chauffeur.
Balghonaim, a Saudi filmmaker who is based between Riyadh and New York, is currently in her thesis year at New York University’s graduate Film & Television MFA program in directing and writing.
Her writing workshops inspired the concept for the movie with Balghonaim penning the script in the second year of the program.
Students from different backgrounds shared their experiences of growing up during the early 2000s in different cultures during a workshop.
“Looking at my own past, I found that most of my memories from this time period featured my chauffeur in Riyadh,” Balghonaim told Arab News. “This is what inspired me to write this story: Me and every girl who grew up during this period have similar memories of their live-in chauffeurs knowing everything about their personal lives.”
Although the events of the film are not based on her personal life, “the dynamic between the protagonist and her driver, is my experience and the experience of most Saudi women,” she said.
Live-in chauffeurs were a common feature in Riyadh households, who knew everything about the young women they drove around from their taste in music to their relationship with their parents, Balghonaim said.
“And, if you are a girl in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s, he (the chauffeur) knows a whole lot about your romantic life . . . or lack thereof.”
As she grew up, she saw young couples become more creative in navigating the strict rules in order to date with many meeting in cars more frequently.
“For women, that meant their chauffeurs were chaperoning these dates,” she said.
The making of the film was almost as challenging as dating in the Kingdom — from funding to casting. Production began two years ago when there was no year-round state funding for Saudi short films, Balghonaim said.
“So, despite the lack of funding from organizations, we managed to pool together money for this project, along with the support of our family and friends who loaned us their cars, and houses, and contributed their time to helping us where they could.”
The filming itself was a challenge too since the entire film takes place inside a cramped van.
“A challenge my director of photography Khalid Alsudairy and I faced was figuring out how to fit the camera and cast in this closed space whilst creating a dynamic visual language,” she said.
The biggest challenge, however, was casting, with the team auditioning many actresses before deciding on Ida Alkusay, who Balghonaim described as “extremely skilled and fearless.”
“Many of them were afraid of participating in a story that is still considered taboo,” said Balghonaim, who had to personally reassure their fathers that there would be no physical intimacy in any of the scenes between the protagonist and her boyfriend.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has come a long way both in terms of investment in the local film industry as well as changes in culture and society.
“The film speaks to a time that is different to where we are now — the GenZ in Saudi are growing up in a time with massive cultural changes, with more freedom to exercise normal day-to-day life,” she said.
With this film, Balghonaim wants to share the experiences of many Saudi women of her generation with a global audience. “I want people to question, to reminisce, and to laugh at the creative lengths we go to when it comes to getting what we want; to exercising our basic need for intimacy and connection,” she said.
“Me & Aydarous” marks Balghonaim’s debut as a director. She has worked with Haifa Al-Mansour as an assistant director on “The Perfect Candidate,” starred in “Dunya’s Day,” winner of the Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and recently produced “Sweet Refuge,” which won the Directors Guild of America Student Award.
Balghonaim is currently working on a feature-length film.
“The stories I’m writing center on women breaking the status quo, and touch on societal behavior and limitations,” she said.
“Me & Aydarous,” which won the Wasserman Award last year, is produced by Raed Alsemari and Salman Almusaad, and associate produced by Khalid Alsudairy, starring Ida Alkusay and Ballah Mohammad Alfadhel.
CineWaves Films owns the film distribution rights in the Arab world and Africa.