Saudi filmmaker Ali Kalthami: ‘It’s finally our time to present our lives as we really live them’ 

Saudi filmmaker Ali Kalthami: ‘It’s finally our time to present our lives as we really live them’ 
Ali Kalthami discusses his debut feature, ‘Mandoob,’ which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. (Supplied)
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Updated 27 November 2023

Saudi filmmaker Ali Kalthami: ‘It’s finally our time to present our lives as we really live them’ 

Saudi filmmaker Ali Kalthami: ‘It’s finally our time to present our lives as we really live them’ 
  • Kalthami discusses his debut feature, ‘Mandoob,’ which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week 

DUBAI: Want to discover a city? Watch a crime film about it. If none exists, then make your own. Visionary Saudi filmmaker Ali Kalthami has long been fascinated by the hidden subcultures in his home city of Riyadh. With “Mandoob,” his first feature film, he’s finally crafted a crooked window in and invited the world to peer through. And with the huge buzz created by the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere, it’s immediately clear that Saudi cinema will never be the same.  

“It’s funny, because I didn’t make this film with a foreign festival in mind,” Kalthami, one of the three co-founders of the hugely influential production company Telfaz11, tells Arab News. “I made it for my parents, friends, and the people of Saudi who have followed us since (YouTube series) ‘Khambalah.’ But it’s a genuine honor to be able to show this film at TIFF. It’s such a huge moment. 

“Everyone in that audience has in their minds a lot of stereotypes about Saudi, and it’s finally our time to present stories that speak to our lives as we really live them. And in doing that, we can show that we, too, speak the global language of film, know its history, and have joined the conversation,” he continues. 

Kalthami got idea for the film three years ago while hosting a private gathering with some of his famous friends during the COVID-19 pandemic. At one point, he welcomed a delivery driver — a ‘mandoob’ as they’re called in Arabic — to bring the food into his living room, and as the man looked around, Kalthami saw something in his eyes that shook something loose from his own past.  

“I’ll never forget that look. He stared at all these celebrities and he was, like, ‘Where am I?’ He was fascinated and confused, and I understood completely. I used to be in that position, too. I came from humble beginnings, and I was an outsider to this world,” he says. 

These days, it’s easy to see Kalthami as the ultimate insider. Over the last 12 years, the team at Telfaz11 have been responsible for shaping the taste of an entire generation through their many YouTube hits. With the record-breaking box office success of wrestling movie “Sattar” and a thriving Netflix multi-picture deal well underway, that loyal audience has shown it will follow them anywhere. How do you keep that going? The trick, Kalthami says, is to never lose sight of your “outsider” beginnings.  

“I think that outsiders who move inside never forget the soul of why we do what we do. If a corporation tried to create something like Telfaz11, they would probably craft it as a business first, thinking only about growth. When you’re somebody who didn’t plan for this success, you’re always thinking about intention,” he says. 

“We’re going into a future in which we need to consciously keep our local voice at the fore, or it will be lost. We need to do this the right way. For us, that means shedding light on the sorts of stories that corporations might shy away from, because we’re focused on more than just the bottom line,” he continues.  

Would a corporation come up with “Mandoob” or something similar? Almost certainly not. In it, a man at the end of his rope becomes a nighttime delivery driver. Desperate for cash to take care of his ailing father, he steals illegal items from smugglers and bootleggers and begins selling them himself, sinking deeper and deeper into a darkness that will inevitably swallow him whole. 

Kalthami was driven, first and foremost, to document his changing hometown before it transformed beyond recognition. A student of film history, he’s keenly aware that, in every decade, the films that capture a city in all its beauty are those that don’t shy away from its ugliness. Films such as “The Bicycle Thieves,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Thief” capture the essence of a time and place — something he hoped “Mandoob” could do as well.  

“So much of that is in how we present the film visually. Usually, when you see this city, it’s in commercials that only want to show you the beauty of Riyadh, but it’s a beauty without tension, so it’s missing truth,” says Kalthami. “Our aim was for every shot, every location, to reflect the emotional journey of Fahad, and at the same time show the history of this city — both its past and future (are) strikingly present with every turn of his wheel.” 

Naturally, doing something no one has ever done before presents you with challenges no one has yet managed to overcome. Kalthami worked tirelessly day and night to find and gain access to locations for the film, sending camera crews to every street in the city to discover locations that could subliminally communicate its transformation even if only shown for a moment. In doing so, he began to understand Riyadh in a way he never had.  

“I hope that, in 50 years, people look back on ‘Mandoob’ as a document of this city and our society. I want them to turn this on and say, ‘Ah, this was the time everything changed. This is what used to be taboo, this was the way of life, this was how people interacted with technology back then.’ It’s an intentional time capsule,” he says.   

Though the film is still fresh, it’s a document of a change in Kalthami’s own life, too. He’s just turned 40, and the film is an encapsulation of the interests that he’s always had but never before had the chance to explore. And as much as he’s enjoyed the playful nature with which he and his partners have approached varying material over the last dozen years, he can no longer afford to approach his future without a clear plan. 

“I have to be practical about my timeline — I’m not in my 20s anymore. I can make probably 10 to 12 films before I’m in my 70s, and I want to do every film right. That’s going to require a lot of reflection and a lot of conversations with the wisest people I know to be sure I’m headed in the right direction,” he says. 

Making the film has made a difference to Kalthami’s everyday life, too. Now, when he opens the front door to a delivery driver, he no longer looks only at the food in his hand. Instead, he sees someone who may be in the thick of his own struggles, and could use some kindness and understanding.  

“Now, I look them in the eye, and I smile, and I start a conversation. We’re so obsessed with these apps and seme to almost think they come equipped with robots,” Kalthami says. “But you never know the stories these men have to tell.” 

Stars descend on Jeddah for the Red Sea International Film Festival

Stars descend on Jeddah for the Red Sea International Film Festival
Updated 33 sec ago

Stars descend on Jeddah for the Red Sea International Film Festival

Stars descend on Jeddah for the Red Sea International Film Festival
  • Glittering event kicked off with gala screening of Dubai-based Iraqi director Yasir Al-Yasiri’s “HWJN”

JEDDAH: Hollywood, Bollywood and Arab stars descended on Jeddah for the opening of the Red Sea International Film Festival on Thursday night.

From Brazilian model Alessandra Ambrosio and Saudi singer Aseel Omran to US actress Michelle Williams, Lebanese songstress Maya Diab, German actress Diane Kruger and US actors Johnny Depp and Will Smith — among many more — it was an affair to remember.

Lebanese actress Nadine Nassib Njeim spoke to Arab News on the red carpet, saying: “The festival marks a turning point for every ambitious Saudi filmmaker, providing excellent support for young talents to showcase their work at international festivals.”

Meanwhile, Saudi director Hakeem Jomah said: “I am super excited to be here especially at this edition … because this one has the most Saudi films of any other edition.”

The glittering event kicked off with a gala screening of Dubai-based Iraqi director Yasir Al-Yasiri’s “HWJN,” which is based on a YA novel by Saudi writer Ibraheem Abbas. Set in modern-day Jeddah, “HWJN” follows the story of a kind-hearted jinn — an invisible entity in Islamic tradition — as he discovers the truth about his royal lineage.

Meanwhile, Kruger, Bollywood star Ranveer Singh and Saudi actor-writer Abdullah Al-Sadhan received career honors at the festival this year.

Earlier on Thursday, Singh graced the red carpet before an “In Conversation” talk by the actor. Dressed in a stylish beige jacket and white pants, he discussed his journey to stardom and his commitment to becoming a versatile actor.

“From action to romance, comedy to drama, I’ve always aimed to test and expand my abilities in these various genres. Showcasing this versatility in my repertoire is a conscious endeavor,” he said on stage.

This year’s celebrity-studded festival jury is presided over by director Baz Luhrmann, joined by Swedish-American actor Joel Kinnaman (“Suicide Squad”); Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”); Egyptian actor Amina Khalil (“Grand Hotel”) and Spain’s Paz Vega (“Sex and Lucía,” “The OA”). 

The Red Sea International Film Festival runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9 and boasts 11 categories of films: Special Screenings; Red Sea: Competition; Red Sea: Shorts Competition; Festival Favorites; Arab Spectacular; International Spectacular; New Saudi/ New Cinema: Shorts; Red Sea: New Vision; Red Sea: Families and Children; Red Sea: Series and Red Sea: Treasures.  

The theme of year’s festival is “Your Story, Your Festival.”

‘Dubai Bling’ releases trailer for season 2

‘Dubai Bling’ releases trailer for season 2
Updated 30 November 2023

‘Dubai Bling’ releases trailer for season 2

‘Dubai Bling’ releases trailer for season 2

DUBAI: Netflix this week dropped the trailer for the second season of the reality show “Dubai Bling,” due for release on Dec. 13.

The returning cast will include Zeina Khoury, Farhana Bodi, Lojain Omran, Kris Fade, Ebraheem Al-Samadi, Loujain Adada, Safa Siddiqui, and DJ Bliss.

US Iraqi beauty mogul Mona Kattan has joined the new season.

Kattan shared the trailer with her 3 million Instagram followers and in a caption to her post, she said: “Season two of ‘Dubai Bling’ is almost here. Can you spot anyone new?”

The trailer shows scenes shot at AlUla.

According to Netflix, the first season was the platform’s third most-watched non-English TV show on the week of its release.

The program has been praised by critics for its ability to attract a multicultural audience due to its diverse cast, as well as merging English and Arabic dialogue, often in the same sentence.

Ludovico Einaudi, James Blunt, Swiss Orchestra to perform at Saudi Arabia’s AlUla 

Ludovico Einaudi, James Blunt, Swiss Orchestra to perform at Saudi Arabia’s AlUla 
Updated 30 November 2023

Ludovico Einaudi, James Blunt, Swiss Orchestra to perform at Saudi Arabia’s AlUla 

Ludovico Einaudi, James Blunt, Swiss Orchestra to perform at Saudi Arabia’s AlUla 

DUBAI: The “Hegra Candlelit Classics” concert series — headed by renowned pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi, the world-famous Swiss Orchestra, and award-winning singer-songwriter James Blunt — is returning to AlUla in January.

The cherished candlelight concerts will take place at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra, coinciding with the Winter at Tantora festival. 

The concert will feature a repertoire of live classical music performed by Einaudi on Jan. 18 alongside a talented mix of Saudi musicians.

Einaudi’s breakthrough came with “Le Onde” (1996), followed by a series of influential albums blending classical and minimalist elements.

His ambitious project “Seven Days Walking” and recent solo piano album “Underwater” showcase his evolving artistry, earning him the prestigious Opus Klassik award in 2022. 

Blunt, renowned for hit singles such as “You’re Beautiful” and “Goodbye My Lover,” will perform at AlUla’s Maraya Concert Hall on Feb. 9. 

The British musician’s 2004 debut album “Back to Bedlam” was the UK’s best-selling album of the 2000s, and set the scene for his popularity ever since. 

The Swiss Orchestra will headline on Jan. 19 during Winter at Tantora. The orchestra has dazzled global audiences with renditions of famous Swiss composers and legendary figures including Beethoven and Mozart.

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF
Updated 30 November 2023

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF
  • The film heads to Saudi Arabia after screening at the Venice Film Festival this year
  • The director has won multiple awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and has been nominated for prizes in Venice and Chicago, among other festivals

DUBAI: Years ago, Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia was struck by an image he couldn’t get out of his head. It was a man running towards a cliff, and when he reached the edge, he started to fly. He knew there was greatness in it — a perfect image of freedom. He felt it could perhaps be the basis for his greatest film. But as he wrote and he wrote, nothing came of it. The emotions felt flat. It wasn’t that the idea wasn’t ready — he wasn’t ready himself.   

“I was maybe 20 years old at the time. I was childish and immature. Everything I wrote made little sense to me,” Ben Attia tells Arab News. “But when I finished my film ‘Hedi’ in 2016, the idea returned. Suddenly this idea of a man flying started appearing in my mind beside my own emotions — the rage I was feeling deep within myself. And then these feelings and that image started to blend.” 

At the start of December, “Behind the Mountains,” the result of that renewed inspiration, will screen in competition at the 2023 Red Sea International Film Festival, after receiving support from the Red Sea Fund while in production. The film made its acclaimed debut at the Venice International Film Festival in September, and as much as Ben Attia put his all into the making of the film, seeing audiences react to such a deeply personal and multifaceted movie can sometimes be painful.  

Ben Attia on set with Walid Bouchhioua, who stars as Yassine in “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

“I hate this at times, to be honest. I know I’m supposed to love it, but it can be difficult when people get so confused by watching it, trying to figure out what it’s trying to tell them,” Ben Attia says. “This is part of doing cinema — a film cannot be loved by everyone. But it’s a very strange feeling with this film particularly, because it’s hard even for me to explain the meaning of the film, as well as for many to understand what drives this character to begin with.”  

“Behind the Mountains” begins simply enough, at least. Rafik is released from a Tunisian prison, four years after his mental health issues manifested as a violent outburst in his former workplace. He now believes he can fly, and kidnaps his young son to take him to a special place behind the mountains to show him that his vision is real.  

There are many potential interpretations of this tale, but it’s hard not to draw parallels to the story of Tunisia itself, even for Ben Attia. Almost exactly 13 years ago, the Tunisian Revolution began, culminating in the ousting of the Ben Ali government and the start of a still-ongoing redrawing of the Tunisian political landscape and a reorganization of the country’s society at large.  

Ben Attia on set with Majd Mastoura, who stars as Rafik in “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

In a time of great upheaval, a world of possibility emerges. Suddenly, the future feels free — enough to make a man feel that he could fly, because perhaps he can. But is the anarchy of freedom a blessing? A curse? Both? And can anything truly change if people continue to impose the same mental shackles on themselves as they did before? It’s a complicated subject that has caused more than a few headaches, to put it lightly.  

“I would say that, since our revolution happened, the busiest people in our society have been the psychiatrists. Because it wasn’t just that things changed politically — it was also a revolution of the individual; a revolution of feeling,” Ben Attia explains. 

“The idea that this regime could change was impossible for us to imagine. So it gave us the feeling that anything could happen, even in our own lives. That’s why people started changing professions, getting divorced… That’s exactly where this film finds its characters — in moments where they come to their own realizations of possibility, their own understandings of how things can be different, for better or for worse.”  

A still from “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied) 

Ben Attia has changed a lot, too. Over the last decade, his work has captured the attention of the film community cross the world. 2016’s “Hedi” won the Best First Feature award at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival and was co-produced by the renowned Dardenne brothers. His next film, “Dear Son,” was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and was the Tunisian entry for the Best International Film category of that year’s Academy Awards.   

Part of what has kept him grounded as his star rises is his second career, the one he rarely talks about.  

“I have a strange life, to be frank. While I’m doing all of this, I’m also a chef in my family’s Italian restaurants in Tunis. I get my ideas for films when I’m working in my kitchen. It gives me balance in my own life when I have these dual identities. It takes the pressure off. When I was just doing nothing, no ideas came. I have to work in the restaurant — I have to be making pasta fresca to get a little bit inspired. It allows me to see things I couldn’t have in any other circumstance,” says Ben Attia.  

But while the kitchen is where the ideas start to flow, art is still an act of self-therapy, especially as it can often contain complex and contradictory ideas that everyday linear thought often can’t. 

A still from “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

“We are living in strange times, especially with what’s happening in Gaza and everywhere else,” Ben Attia says. “It’s not just our region of the world, it’s also about the identity of the Arab people and our relation to the Occident. As an artist, that fills us with contradictions — today I think something and tomorrow I think something very different. But thankfully, we are not making science, we are making cinema. We’re still discovering what the truth could be, and what our future could be.”  

At each screening of “Behind the Mountains,” Ben Attia gets different interpretations from the audience of all the things it may be saying. And with every question, he has more time to consider what he thinks about both the work and the world he’s living in — and he hasn’t quite worked it out. But that’s the beauty of cinema, as he says, and when his next film idea comes to the boil back in his kitchen, he’s ready to see where his inspiration takes him next.  

“I’m giving myself boundaries: first, just follow the promotion of this film just to understand better what I did and how, and why I did it. Even if that hurts, it’s good to do, and it’s good to react to what happened with this film,” he says. “Even now, I have a vague idea — I have another image I’m getting ready to pursue. But I’m in no rush. I want to take my time and see if it’s still there in a few months, and if that’s the case, then I’m ready to start for sure on the right foot.” 

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’
Updated 30 November 2023

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’

Director Yasir Al-Yasiri talks ‘surreal’ opportunity to open Red Sea International Film Festival with ‘HWJN’
  • Fantasy film based on hit novel ‘about the journey of discovery,’ director says
  • Baraa Alem stars as kindhearted jinn who falls for mortal woman

DUBAI: Iraqi director Yasir Al-Yasiri said he was delighted that his new film, “HWJN,” had been chosen to open this year’s Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah.

Speaking to Arab News before the big night on Thursday, the Dubai-based filmmaker said: “I feel really surreal. Getting to open the festival in Jeddah about a story set in Jeddah itself is pretty fantastic.”

The fantasy film is based on the hit young adult novel of the same name by Saudi Ibraheem Abbas, which was praised for combining Western sci-fi and fantasy tropes with Arab culture and folklore.

Al-Yasiri said he was drawn to the challenge of making a fantasy film in Saudi Arabia as the genre was still new in Arab cinema.

A poster for opening film 'HWJN.' (Supplied) 

“And to actually have Image Nation Abu Dhabi, MBC and Vox excited to bring this to life was very fortunate. For me, it was an ideal opportunity to bring such a story to life.”

Set in modern-day Jeddah, “HWJN” follows the story of Hwjn, a kindhearted jinn (genie), played by Baraa Alem, as he discovers the truth about his royal lineage and falls in love with Sawsan, a mortal woman played by Nour Al-Khadra.

“‘Hwjn’ is a story about the jinn world. Of course, jinn is deep-rooted in our culture and religion and it’s a familiar subject to our audience. Yet, there is no visual representation of jinns. So, I wanted to make a movie about them and at the same time make it relatable to the audience, so they feel what they have in their minds — as a legacy and from a cultural standpoint — can be relatable visually,” Al-Yasiri said.

“The story is about the journey of discovery that one of the jinns takes and a forbidden relationship that he has with someone from the other realm, which is the human realm.”

Al-Yasiri, whose previous films include “Murk Light” and “On Borrowed Time,” spent five years making “HWJN” and said its cast were as obsessed with the novel as its many fans.

“When it comes to casting, I always follow my instant gut feeling,” he said. “Most of my previous films, I cast my actors upon first viewing, like I get butterflies when I see their performance. And when I see that both performance and looks really match with what I have in mind for the character, it clicks.

“Noura Al-Kadra really was one of those actors who really clicked right away as soon as I saw her audition tape. And I said, ‘That’s it, this is Sawsan.’ And it was the same with the others, like Baraa and Naif (Al-Daferi),” he said.

“Their hunger and appetite to the story itself and how aware they were to the success of the novel I think added an additional layer to how excited they were about it and that was really showing in their auditions.”

The Red Sea International Film Festival runs from Thursday to Dec. 9.