Egyptian-American filmmaker Ali Selim on his heritage and leading Marvel series ‘Secret Invasion’ 

Egyptian-American filmmaker Ali Selim on his heritage and leading Marvel series ‘Secret Invasion’ 
Director Ali Selim on the set of ‘Secret Invasion.’ (Marvel Studios)
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Updated 10 August 2023
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Egyptian-American filmmaker Ali Selim on his heritage and leading Marvel series ‘Secret Invasion’ 

Egyptian-American filmmaker Ali Selim on his heritage and leading Marvel series ‘Secret Invasion’ 

DUBAI: The film world is full of directors, but few have mastered the challenge of the true tentpole Hollywood blockbuster. Egyptian-American director Ali Selim just did so with aplomb — and made history in the process.  

With a reported $212 million budget, Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” is the largest project led by an Arab filmmaker to date, a sprawling sci-fi spy thriller miniseries with an all-star cast. How did he pull it off? By focusing on the human element, even when things were at their biggest.  

“For me, it always comes down to creating a space for actors to do that very small, mysterious, quiet thing that they do,” Selim tells Arab News. “Even in a scene where there’s literally 2,000 extras running by and propane bombs going off all around them.” 

Those moments can be difficult for myriad reasons, Selim explains. In the first episode of the Disney+ miniseries, for example, Selim was tasked with capturing the shocking death of Maria Hill, the beloved character played for 12 years by actress Cobie Smulders, at the hands of what appears to be Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic character Nick Fury. Saying goodbye after so long is difficult for a performer. Pulling that off as a director took not only skill, but empathy.  

“It was the biggest scene we filmed in the entirety of the eight-month shoot, and I just had to create a corner in that chaos where it’s all about her and her moment. And, credit to her, Cobie really pulled it off. My biggest worry was that I might get death threats for killing off Maria Hill, but luckily that didn’t happen,” Selim says.  




Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in Marvel Studios’ ‘Secret Invasion.’ (Marvel Studios)

Taking on the world of Marvel can be a daunting task, not only because of the size of each individual project, but also because of the baggage that comes with continuing a story that began when Jackson first stepped in front of the camera as Fury in 2008’s “Iron Man.” “Secret Invasion” picks up where 2019’s billion-dollar-grossing “Captain Marvel” left off, as a fringe group of shape-shifting alien refugees have broken from their peaceful brethren in an attempt to make Earth their own.  

Selim was undoubtably the right man for the job, not just because of his extensive experience as a journeyman filmmaker working at every scale and in every genre — not to mention a staggering near 900 television commercials (“856, according to my last invoice,” Selim corrects us). Most importantly, Selim was able to find himself in the story on a personal level because of his heritage and upbringing.  

“I pulled out of these scripts a theme that was very interesting to me, as it touches on the sociopolitical landscape we’re living in now. All of this pulses through my veins. My father is from Egypt, and my mother is an American of German descent. I spent extended periods of time in both Egypt and the US growing up, and I always felt both completely at home and completely alien in both places,” he explains. 

Selim’s father came from an enormous family — 18 brothers and sisters, of whom 14 survived to adulthood. Each summer, he would spend time with hundreds of his relatives, and connected to Egyptian culture intimately, something that he held to tightly when he returned to school in Minnesota each fall.  

“I don’t necessarily look Egyptian to Western eyes, so I was able to avoid prejudice growing up in the US, but I’ve still always felt ‘other’ deep down. Simultaneously, I wouldn’t say I’ve served as a bridge between two cultures, but rather my blood has allowed me to see the invisible bridge that already exists between them — the shared humanity. That has informed not just the way I tell stories, but the way I’ve lived my life,” Selim says.  

His connection to the region continues to this day. Abu Bakr Shawky, the director behind the 2018 Cannes favorite “Yomeddine” and the upcoming Ithra-produced Saudi film “Hajjan,” counts Selim as a true mentor. Selim was integral to his own development as a filmmaker, he told us recently, and the Shawky family has also supported Selim on a personal level.   

“My daughter is now connecting strongly with Egyptian culture, and Abu Bakr’s father actually helped us navigate the local government agencies so that we could get her Egyptian birth certificate and national ID,” Selim tells us.  

His relationship with the region’s best talent has already made its way into his work. In 2016, he was able to work with one of the most-gifted Arab actors working today in his acclaimed miniseries “The Looming Tower,” which follows Algerian-French actor Tahar Rahim as the real-life Muslim Lebanese-American FBI agent Ali Soufan during his counter-terrorism efforts of the late 1990s.  

As fulfilling as that experience was for him, Selim has many more stories to tell in the region. He has one upcoming project centered around the life of a major figure from the Arab world that he can’t yet reveal, as well as another that he has been trying to get off the ground for years. 

“I won’t say too much, but it begins with that famous scene from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in reverse, told from the perspective of a Bedouin man trying to protect his family’s well,” teases Selim. 




Ali Selim and actor Alan Cumming with the Best First Feature award for ‘Sweet Land’ at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards. (AFP)

If it weren’t for his father, Selim would likely have never gotten into filmmaking at all. An economics professor at the University of Minnesota, his dad was recruited directly from Egypt by a man named Ed Coen. The two families grew very close and, as a child, Selim would have Sunday dinner at the Coen’s house, with Ed’s two sons, future Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen, sitting across from him.  

“Ten years later, the two of them made ‘Blood Simple.’ I thought to myself, ‘There’s people that I know who can do this.’ I didn’t think I could be them, but I thought, ‘Why not try?’ Suddenly, the idea that stories are being told by real people made cinema feel attainable to me,” he says.  

The filmmaker first stepped into the spotlight with his award-winning independent passion project “Sweet Land” in 2005, but it was his experience on HBO’s acclaimed series “In Treatment” five years later that would set the stage for the rest of his career, as he immediately thrived in the role of a collaborator who could be trusted to execute any vision.  

“At the premiere of ‘Sweet Land,’ I remember my producer friend whispered in my ear, ‘I want you to enjoy the heck out of this, because it’s the last time you’ll make a film without adult supervision.’ And he was right. But I learned on ‘In Treatment’ that I loved working with brilliant people, arguing about how to get the right shot or the right performance,” says Selim. 

“That’s exactly what I’ve done with ‘Secret Invasion’ too — executing this finely tuned vision led by (Marvel Studios head) Kevin Feige. Sure, it’s different from the maverick independent career I could have had, but I just never think of it that way. I love rolling up my sleeves and sticking my hands in the clay, figuring out how I can connect with something being told on the grandest scale.” 


Review: ‘My Spy: The Eternal City’ is a Bautista-led letdown

Review: ‘My Spy: The Eternal City’ is a Bautista-led letdown
Updated 20 July 2024
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Review: ‘My Spy: The Eternal City’ is a Bautista-led letdown

Review: ‘My Spy: The Eternal City’ is a Bautista-led letdown

LONDON: Thanks in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic, we never really got to find out what audiences made of 2020’s “My Spy,” in which CIA operative JJ (Dave Bautista) is forced to team up with precocious 9-year-old Sophie (Chloe Coleman) to take down an international arms cartel.

The movie’s cinematic release, and subsequent box office receipts, were curtailed by global lockdowns as the film went straight to streaming, and found an audience suddenly a lot more tolerant of decidedly average content.

Anna Faris as Nancy and Dave Bautista as JJ in ‘My Spy: The Eternal City.’ (Supplied)

You wonder if, had audiences been able to vote with their feet first time around, “My Spy: The Eternal City” might never have seen the light of day. For while this is ostensibly a comedy-action romp co-starring a teenager, it is also a weirdly violent, oddly graphic spy caper that does not seem too sure of what it is trying to be.

JJ and Chloe now live in suburban almost-harmony. He has taken a desk job so he can be at home more, while she rebels against his overbearing presence and constant demands she keeps up her spy training. When JJ offers to chaperone a school trip to Italy, he must balance being a cool stepdad with a rapidly unfolding plot to blow up the Vatican in which the pair become embroiled.

Returning for the sequel are Ken Jeong as JJ’s boss, and Kristen Schaal as his nerdy analyst Bobbi. But if you are hoping that continuity of casting means a coherent follow up to the 2020 original, you are in for a disappointment.

Chloe Coleman as Sophie and Dave Bautista as JJ on the set ‘My Spy: The Eternal City.’ (Supplied)

Director Pete Segal (also returning) starts off with the same familiar, comedic beats (and leans heavily on this franchise’s spiritual predecessors “Kindergarten Cop” and “The Pacifier”) but makes the baffling choice to turn up the violence.

The sequence with some attack budgerigars is a particular lowlight, and the bottom-drawer comedy with jokes about bodily functions and a fight involving a naked statue.

It is all a bit of a mess, which is a shame, because Bautista (so good with deadpan comedy in the Marvel movies) and Coleman manage to recreate some of the same chemistry that was one of the few good things about the original.

That film was not great, sure, but compared to this, it seems like a fondly remembered masterpiece.


Adidas faces backlash for dropping Bella Hadid from sneaker campaign

Adidas faces backlash for dropping Bella Hadid from sneaker campaign
Updated 19 July 2024
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Adidas faces backlash for dropping Bella Hadid from sneaker campaign

Adidas faces backlash for dropping Bella Hadid from sneaker campaign
  • Shoes linked to 1972 Munich Games killing of Israeli athletes.

LONDON: Adidas on Friday dropped American model Bella Hadid from an advertising campaign for sneakers that are associated with the 1972 Munich Olympics, following criticism from pro-Israeli groups.

The German sportswear company apologized for the “upset and distress” caused by choosing Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, as the face of its relaunched SL72 sports shoes. The original version of the footwear was created for the 1972 Games, during which 11 Israeli athletes and a German policeman were killed by a Palestinian militant group.

The relaunch of the shoe last week drew criticism from the Israeli government, in a message posted on social media platform X, and several Jewish groups. They questioned the decision by Adidas to select Hadid to advertise a shoe originally associated with an event during which several Israelis were killed.

Adidas said it would “revise” its campaign and added: “We are conscious that connections have been made to tragic historical events, though these are completely unintentional, and we apologize for any upset or distress caused.”

Hadid has repeatedly made public comments critical of the Israeli government and in support of Palestinians over the years. In an Instagram post dated Oct. 23 last year she described the military campaign launched by Israeli authorities following the Oct. 7 attacks as “the most intense bombardment in the history of Gaza,” and lamented the loss of innocent Palestinian lives.

“US White House National Security Council dangerously says Israel ‘owes no one any justification’ and that it will have ‘no red lines.’ Innocent lives should always be justified in the name of humanity,” she added.

“Israel has completely shut off telecommunications and electricity across Gaza. Injured civilians currently can’t call ambulances. Medics are begging reporters to let them know where bombardments are happening, but reporters don’t know either because of the internet outage. The people of Gaza have nowhere to go. Children are dying. Please.”

The decision to drop Hadid from the campaign prompted a wave of support for the model on social media, with figures such as journalists Mehdi Hasan and Candace Owens criticizing Adidas. Some people called for a boycott of the company.
 


Mohammed Khoja pays homage to the Kingdom in latest collection 

Mohammed Khoja pays homage to the Kingdom in latest collection 
Updated 20 July 2024
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Mohammed Khoja pays homage to the Kingdom in latest collection 

Mohammed Khoja pays homage to the Kingdom in latest collection 
  • The Saudi fashion designer discusses his new shirts, inspired by different regions of his homeland 

RIYADH: “I was very motivated by (the idea of) integrating my experiences as a Saudi and contributing to the creation of a more contemporary Saudi design identity through my point of view,” Saudi fashion designer Mohammed Khoja, founder of luxury label Hindamme, tells Arab News. “My ultimate goal is to open more doors and to spread Saudi culture to global audiences. 

“Hindamme has grown considerably since its inception, and I am very optimistic about what’s to come. I believe brands such as mine are proving to be more lucrative and I’ve observed an uptick in demand, and opportunities for growth, in recent months,” he continues. 

Hindamme is an old Arabic adjective that roughly “a harmonious aesthetic form.” That is what Khoja hopes to capture in each of his creations — combining a bold but minimalist approach to ready-to-wear fashion.  

Mohammed Khoja is the founder of luxury label Hindamme. (Supplied)

Hindamme’s “Season V” collection, for example, drew on color theory, and included “mood-enhancing” gradients as well as futuristic, nature-inspired themes in fabrics including velvet, nylon, and satin. Khoja debuted those designs in Paris in June last year, along with 15 other Saudi designers at a pop-up event called Emerge, organized by the Saudi Fashion Commission and MoCX, the Saudi Ministry of Culture's General Department of Innovation, in partnership with the Saudi Visual Arts Commission, the Saudi Culinary Arts Commission, and the Saudi Music Commission.  

“Season V” was designed during COVID-19 lockdowns, and was partly inspired by Khoja’s desire to “reconnect” with the Earth. It included a heat temperature-gradient blazer, which Khoja intended as a stark reminder of the threat of climate change. 

For his latest collection, his sixth, the designer was inspired by different regions of his homeland.  

“It is inspired by my love of travel and pays homage to the Kingdom’s drive to promote tourism. I designed pieces that were sort of like elevated post cards for every region — it truly is like a love letter to our cultural diversity. The new designs are also a lesson in visual storytelling; they invite you on a journey to discover each of these glorious regions.” Khoja says.  

Khoja says he spent months conducting extensive research. “I integrated the landmarks of each region that I felt were the most iconic and synonymous. Each design incorporates the iconography of that area, such as Jeddah, Riyadh, Aseer, Eastern Province and AlUla.” 

Here, Khoja discusses some of the pieces from his latest collection. 

AlUla 

“The ancient languages and rock art are important elements for AlUla because of its rich ancient history of Lihyanite and Nabatean civilizations, so I utilized it for the shirt. Along with the ancient inscriptions and carvings, the AlUla shirt is decorated with famous ancient sites and landmarks such as Hegra and Elephant Rock, along with the integration of the majestic Arabian leopard,” the designer says. 

Aseer  

Khoja’s Aseer silk shirt includes a hand-painted backdrop of Rijal AlMaa village, decorated with Al-Qatt Al-Aseeri patterns, which the designer credits as a major source of inspiration throughout his career. “Aseeri culture has always been a great influence. I grew up reading books about the beautiful crafts and how women of the region specialized in this art,” the designer says, adding that Al-Qatt Al-Assiri was also the inspiration for his debut collection. 

Jeddah  

“Jeddah is a colorful array of iconography representing the bright colors of the coastal city,” Khoja says. “Jeddah is very famous for its breathtaking sunsets and I wanted to present its sunsets as the centerpiece. The shirt also includes the famous fountain as well as architecture from Jeddah’s historical district, Al-Balad.” 

Eastern province 

“With the Eastern Province design, I featured iconic landmarks of the region, with refences to Jabal Qarra in AlAhsa, Ithra and Dammam Well No. 7 — the first oil well discovered in the Kingdom,” says Khoja. 

Riyadh 

“The Riyadh silk shirt is another piece of visual storytelling and features iconic modern-day landmarks of our beloved capital such as KAFD, Kingdom Tower, and Al-Faisaliyah Tower. It infuses the rich traditions of its past with a neon homage to Diriyah and motif patterns taken from old Najdi doors,” Khoja said.  


Institut du Monde Arabe’s ‘Arabofuturs’ examines singularities of the Arab world 

Institut du Monde Arabe’s ‘Arabofuturs’ examines singularities of the Arab world 
Updated 20 July 2024
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Institut du Monde Arabe’s ‘Arabofuturs’ examines singularities of the Arab world 

Institut du Monde Arabe’s ‘Arabofuturs’ examines singularities of the Arab world 
  • We need to ‘stop seeing the Arab world as a block,’ says IMA curator 

PARIS: The latest contemporary art exhibition at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris — “Arabofuturs,” which runs until Oct. 27 — is, according to curator Élodie Bouffard, “built around the dynamic of the singularities expressed in the Arab world, and the singularity of each of the artists.” Those artists come from the Arab world and its diasporas, and include Saudi artists Ayman Zedani and Zahrah Alghamdi, Lebanese sculptor Souraya Haddad Credoz, Tunisian artist Aïcha Snoussi, and Moroccan artist Hicham Berrada. 

The show is divided into two parts: “Programmed Futures” and “Hybrid Futures.” In the first, Bouffard explains, the featured artists explore contemporary society, “capitalism, ultra-consumerism, the question of exile, the diaspora, and identities — often through a post-colonial approach.” 

The second part tackles imagined societies — the artists deploy aesthetic fictions that take visitors into organic worlds “that make us travel in time, and reflect on transhumanism, the future of the human, and the resilience of nature,” Bouffard says. 

Saudi artist Ayman Zedani's video installation at 'Arabofuturs.' (Supplied)

Both sections underline that the notion, and perception, of the future is personal, with each artist drawing on his or her personal experiences. 

The exhibition begins with a space dedicated to artwork from Gulf, and an introduction to the concept of Gulf futurism formulated by Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria and Kuwaiti musician and conceptual artist Fatima Al-Qadiri in 2012 as part of a photo series and interview in Dazed magazine. It was, according to the IMA website, “a worried questioning of the accelerated hyper-modernization at work in the region.” 

“This article was a pivotal moment in Gulf futurism, having led the artists to become interested in the question of futures and science fiction,” explains Bouffard. 

Sophia Al-Maria et Fatima Al Qadiri's 'The Desert of the Unreal.' (Supplied)

Al-Maria’s “Black Friday” — a series of photographs and a video installation — questions the standardization of spaces and the loneliness that can stem from it. It is followed by Al-Ghamdi’s “Birth of a Place,” which was previously displayed at the Diriyah Contemporary Art Bienniale, and explores new architectures. 

“She's trying to create a new cosmogony — a new (example) of the skyline, the enhancement of heritage, and the future of metal and glass constructions, in environments where there’s a real material and architectural cultural,” notes Bouffard. 

The aim of this section is to present the different approaches to architecture, heritage, identity, and exile in the Gulf and North Africa.  

A still from Larissa Sansour's 'In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain.' (Supplied)

“Themes pertaining to the future of societies can be rooted in their past,” Bouffard says. “It is our job at the IMA to stop seeing the Arab world as a block. We wanted to show that there is not just one future. When we talk about the future, everyone thinks of video games and artificial intelligence, but futures unfold in all forms. We thought it would be interesting to reflect on artefacts, paintings, ceramics, and organic material.” 

Al-Ghamdi, for example, used leather, an organic material in “Worlds to Come,” while Berrada used metal to create hybrid masks combining insects, plants, and humans in “Les Hygres.” Elsewhere, Credoz worked with ceramics “to shape coloured magma and build post-apocalyptic organic worlds,” Bouffard says. 

A piece from Hicham Berrada's 'Les Hygres.' (Supplied)

Snoussi, meanwhile, “recreates manifestos that bear witness to past societies that have disappeared, leading to Arabic writing, but also to Amazigh, with a theme of symbolism that recreates bridges between the present and the future.” 

Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour contributes “In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain,” a video from 2015 featuring archaeological activists burying porcelain bearing a keffiyeh motif, an attempt to make future claims on this territory. 

“She highlights the politicization of archaeology in Israel and Palestine in this video, which has a particular resonance today,” Bouffard says. 


Apple TV’s robot-themed comedy thriller ‘Sunny’ is a surprising triumph

Apple TV’s robot-themed comedy thriller ‘Sunny’ is a surprising triumph
Updated 19 July 2024
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Apple TV’s robot-themed comedy thriller ‘Sunny’ is a surprising triumph

Apple TV’s robot-themed comedy thriller ‘Sunny’ is a surprising triumph
  • Familiar genre tropes are combined to make a uniquely gripping show

DUBAI: The odd-couple premise of Apple TV’s “Sunny” isn’t particularly promising — in near-future Japan a grieving widow, Suzie Sakamoto (Rashida Jones) teams up with the titular robot to try and solve the mysterious disappearance (and, apparently, death) of her husband and son in a plane crash. So far, so meh.

But “Sunny” is actually a delight. In the three episodes available at the time of writing, it mixes gory violence, humor — both dark and silly, a quirky aesthetic, meditative takes on loss, and explorations of how technology plays on our fears and desires. Jones is excellent as the expat American who come to Japan seeking solitude and instead found love with the kind-hearted Masa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), with whom she has a son, Zen.

After their disappearance, Suzie is gifted a “homebot,” Sunny, by her husband’s employers, a tech firm for whom Masa was a refrigeration engineer. At least that’s what he told Suzie. But then she’s told that Masa programmed Sunny especially for her — her first clue that perhaps Masa hasn’t been entirely honest with her.

Suzie is not a fan of technology, so her first instinct is to reject Sunny’s overbearingly cute attempts to bond with her, just as she tries to ignore her mother-in-law Noriko’s cutting tongue and clear disdain for the American her son chose to marry.

But as Suzie uncovers more details about her husband’s work life (at a company party, one of Masa’s minions talks of him fearfully), and his disappearance, she begins to realize that Sunny may hold the key to uncovering a sinister conspiracy.

Suzie is aided in her quest by a cocktail-bar waitress, Mixxy (singer-songwriter and social-media star Annie the Clumsy), who provides another awkward corner to the Suzie-Sunny relationship, as well as a window for Suzie into the underground world of bot-hacking. But while Suzie carries out her own investigations, she too is being stalked and observed by a shadowy criminal gang led by the sinister and scary Hime, who, it seems, also knew Masa.

“Sunny” is a gripping slow-burn, confidently paced by showrunner Katie Robbins and beautifully acted by its mostly Japanese cast. Despite the show’s many strands, Robbins’ deft touch means it avoids drifting into confusion, instead holding the audience’s attention as it leads you into a story that uses familiar elements from multiple genres to create something unique.