Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 

Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 
Alhusaini on set with his crew. (Supplied)
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Updated 29 September 2023

Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 

Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 
  • ‘All the best filmmakers break the rules,’ says Zeyad Alhusaini

DUBAI: Great artists make the art they feel is missing from the world. For filmmakers, however, that’s easier said than done. For years, Kuwaiti director Zeyad ‘Zee’ Alhusaini was told that, to succeed, he had to either make a standard Hollywood movie, or another film highlighting Arab misery. He dreamed of something different — a cross-genre epic that merged the spirits of the films and the region he adored. He knew, deep down, that Gulf audiences craved a new path forward just as much as he did.  

Ten years after starting that journey, Alhusaini has been vindicated. His debut feature, “How I Got There” — a Saudi-Kuwaiti co-production — has just become the highest-grossing domestic film in Kuwait’s history, a few months after winning the Audience Award for Best Saudi Film at the 2022 Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. And after signing with international talent agency UTA, he’s now set to become a major voice in global film for years to come.  

“How I Got There” is Alhusaini’s debut feature (Supplied) 

“Years ago, when I first became a filmmaker, I met with all the major studios. But I had to ask myself: Do I want to just make a film, or do I want to make a film that changes someone’s life? I chose the latter. That’s what drove me, and that’s what still drives me today,” Alhusaini tells Arab News. 

“In both the region and the world, we’re in dire need of new perspectives to reinvigorate this medium. For cinema to move forward, we need a new wave, and I hope to be part of that evolution,” he continues.  

Alhusaini has always been something of a maverick. When he studied film at Columbia University in New York, he would often get into arguments with his professors, who would tell him again and again to follow the so-called ‘rules’ of what makes a good screenplay, a notion that the filmmakers he adored, including Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, never adhered to.  

Ron Perlman in “How I Got There.” (Supplied)

“I remember one particular exchange. My professor told me: ‘I just want to help you write a better film!’ I responded, ‘I feel like you’re trying to make us all write the same film with different characters!’ I wanted to do something different, because all the best filmmakers break the rules,” Alhusaini says.  

With “How I Got There,” Alhusaini took heavy inspiration from Scorsese films such as “Casino” and “Goodfellas” to craft something singular; the story of two best friends who stumble upon a gun shipment in Kuwait and try to get rich quick, only to be pulled into a dark world of crime and terror, with action, drama, suspense, and a surprising dose of comedy. Alhusaini aimed big, even writing in an American mercenary that he imagined could be played by American actor Ron Perlman, the star of “Hellboy” and “Sons of Anarchy.” To his surprise, Perlman was interested.  

“In most scripts, you can predict where they’re going next, but in Zee’s script, I had no idea,” says Perlman. “I was hooked. It was truly great writing. We met in LA, and I could see that this was a serious filmmaker who was really dedicated to putting some heavy-duty stuff on the screen. And that's my language. I knew this was an adventure that I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in.”  

3 Alhusaini (center), his wife Latifa Aljasmi, and Perlman attend the screening of “How I Got There” at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December 2022. (Supplied)

The experience was eye-opening for Perlman, who, like most Americans, had only ever been exposed to the Arabian Gulf through sensationalist news stories, without having the chance to experience its culture first-hand. 

“My understanding of the Middle East was strictly from headlines on CNN. That’s a problem. When everything’s coming through the lens of socio-political news stories, you’re not being immersed in real culture; they’re not shining a light on the true humanity,” says Perlman. 

“One of the great privileges of my career is that I got this invitation to participate in a Kuwaiti-Saudi film, to see the human side of this amazing place. Zee gave me this incredible gift that few have gotten to experience: to be able to experience Kuwait and this region, to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone I never knew I would have a relationship with, as equals, and to present a work of art to the world with pride and love,” he continues.  

Perlman, who has just returned to the US after attending the film’s Kuwait and Saudi premieres, stars opposite a host of talent from across the region. While there are some established names, such as beloved Kuwaiti veteran actor Jassim Al-Nabhan, Alhusaini primarily opted for up-and-comers who had yet to enter the film world, including Kuwaiti TV veteran Yaqoob Abdullah, Bahraini pop star Hala Al-Turk, and Kuwait-born Iraqi actress Rawan Mahdi, star of Netflix’s acclaimed series “The Exchange.”  

Bobby Naderi (left) and Rawan Mahdi in “How I Got There.” (Supplied)

“I spent three months with the actors, basically stripping away the habits of television and replacing them with new habits,” says Alhusaini. “That was crucial, because I wanted us to get to the point where we could have our own little language. When Ron came in, he made everyone so comfortable because he has this contented spirit that is just infectious. You can’t help but feel welcome around him.” 

While Perlman, 72, admits he has grown more and more comfortable in his own skin as he’s gotten older, he doesn’t revel in being the guy on set that everyone looks up to.  

“I don’t like being the elder statesman at all. My knees hurt, my ankles hurt… I remember being the kid they ordered to go get a cup of coffee for them. Those were the days!” says Perlman. 

“On this set, a funny thing happened. We were all so curious about each other’s cultures that we kind of diminished our own experiences. The other lead actors might look at me like I’ve cornered the market on success, just because I've been around longer and I’ve done a larger number of projects. When that happened, I said to them, ‘You just gave a performance that blew my mind. That’s what you need to know. You don't need to hear anything from me. You don’t understand how special you are.’” 

Yaqoob Abdulla (center, left) and Hamad Alomadi (center, right) in “How I Got There.” (Supplied)

Alhusaini now counts Perlman as a friend, a welcome end to a journey that began when he first entered the script into the IWC Filmmaker Award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013, and began shooting the film in 2018.  

Now, as he nears the end of a successful theatrical run in the region, he waits to see what the future holds for international release. He knows the right streaming partner could turn his film into the sort of cult classic that could inspire a new generation, just as the films of the 70s, 80s, and 90s inspired him. 

“This has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life, but never for a second did I think to stop. I always wanted to find a way, because I knew this would be an important film. I matured as a filmmaker, I got to meet great people, and I got to present something that I feel is important for people of Kuwait and the Gulf,” says Alhusaini.  

“For now, I need to rest, but the next journey begins (soon). My next film will be set in the US, and then I’ll return to the Middle East for the one after that, and so on, in a cycle. And if all goes well, Ron and I will be working together again on the next one, in a very different style,” he continues. “There’s so much left to do, but the new wave is coming.” 

Red Sea International Film Festival spotlights Korean entertainment

Red Sea International Film Festival spotlights Korean entertainment
Updated 04 December 2023

Red Sea International Film Festival spotlights Korean entertainment

Red Sea International Film Festival spotlights Korean entertainment

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea International Film Festival is making a visible effort to attract titles from across the world — with Arab, Bollywood, Hollywood and Korean celebrities gracing many a red carpet at the Nov. 30-Dec. 9 event in Jeddah.

Earlier this week, the star of the Korean thriller mini-series “The Deal” Yoo Seung-Ho walked the red carpet at VOX Cinemas in the Red Sea Mall.

“The Deal” is an eight-episode South Korean drama that is based on a Korean comic series made by artist Woonam 20. It tells the story of Jae-Hyo who kidnaps his rich friend Park Minwoo to ask for a ransom from the latter’s mother, and Lee Jun-Seong, played by Yoo Seung-Ho, who is torn between rescuing his friend Minwoo or assisting his friend Jae-Hyo in the criminal act due to his urgent need for money to save his and his father’s lives.

Only the first three episodes of the emotionally provoking series premiered on the silver screen in Jeddah. After the screening, the director spoke to the audience about why he decided to turn the comic story into a live-action series.

The poster for 'The Deal.' (Supplied) 

“Why did I do it? Because the concept of a friend kidnapping a friend is very provocative, or as we say in Korea ‘very spicy’,” said director Lee. “I decided that this is a concept which can show how the younger people, the youth in Korea, live.”

 When asked by Arab News about the scene he found the most challenging, Seung-Ho said the role as a whole was a tough nut to crack.

“The biggest challenge was having to be this character whose hostile hostage is a friend, and the kidnapper is also his friend. And I’m in the middle of it all,” said Seung-Ho.

 “And of course, the fights were physically challenging, but there was also this psychological and mental challenge of playing the scenes where I am the friend of both the kidnapper and the hostage,” he said.

RSIFF title ‘Antidote’ sheds light on the challenges faced by Saudi musicians in the past

RSIFF title ‘Antidote’ sheds light on the challenges faced by Saudi musicians in the past
Updated 04 December 2023

RSIFF title ‘Antidote’ sheds light on the challenges faced by Saudi musicians in the past

RSIFF title ‘Antidote’ sheds light on the challenges faced by Saudi musicians in the past

JEDDAH: Saudi director Hassan Saeed is set to unveil his short film “Antidote” at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah and spoke to Arab News ahead of the screening to explain the themes he explores and why he chose to tell this story. 

The 20-minute film tells the story of a young boy, Ali, who sets out with his father’s tape recorder to record a folk singer named Abu Hussain.

However, Abu Hussain loses his voice after undergoing throat surgery, and Ali reconnects with him through a previous recording. The deliberate use of silence surrounding Abu Hussain serves as a powerful motif, symbolizing his enduring struggle and passion for music, set against the challenges faced by Saudi musicians in the past.

Saeed said that he drew inspiration for “Antidote” from his formative years in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.

“Having grown up in a society where musicians and music were not widely embraced, my goal was to portray the challenges encountered by underground musicians in the 1990s. The film intertwines a personal narrative with a broader cultural context, showcasing the unwavering determination and commitment of artists in the face of adversity,” he said.

Saudi director Hassan Saeed on set. (Supplied)

The director is excited about showing his work to global audiences at the festival, which attracts participation from international industry figures.

“I firmly believe that our stories possess a unique quality, and through ‘Antidote,’ we can offer a fresh and captivating perspective to audiences worldwide. I anticipate the film resonating deeply with viewers, sparking meaningful conversations, and bridging cultural gaps,” he said.

“I am thrilled about the prospect of presenting ‘Antidote’ at the Red Sea Film Festival, as it offers an ideal setting to connect with international directors and producers who share a profound passion for cinema.”

Reflecting on his career as a filmmaker, Saeed said that growing up in a conservative society with limited access to cinema, his fascination with the art form began with a VHS camcorder in the late 1980s. This early exposure to capturing moments on film sparked his love for observing the world through a lens.

The film's poster. (Supplied)

Saeed’s hope is that “Antidote” will allow audiences to connect with the characters and their struggles, and also spark an appreciation for local stories.

“The characters and their journeys are not limited to a specific culture or region; they represent universal experiences that can resonate with people from different backgrounds,” he said.

“Through my work, I hope to bridge cultural gaps and foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of Saudi culture.”

With its unique storytelling and cinematic style, “Antidote” stands out, particularly as a period piece set in the 1990s.

The film was made in collaboration with German director of photography Christoph Schumann, and has garnered widespread recognition, including two Golden Palm awards for best short film and best cinematography at the 2023 Saudi Film Festival.

Saeed said that through “Antidote” and future projects, he hopes to contribute to a “more comprehensive and accurate understanding of Saudi culture on a global scale.”

He added: “Film has the power to transcend boundaries and bring people together, and it is my mission to use this medium to tell meaningful and impactful stories.”

Oscar-nominated director Kaouther Ben Hania talks challenges faced filming ‘Four Daughters’

Oscar-nominated director Kaouther Ben Hania talks challenges faced filming ‘Four Daughters’
Updated 04 December 2023

Oscar-nominated director Kaouther Ben Hania talks challenges faced filming ‘Four Daughters’

Oscar-nominated director Kaouther Ben Hania talks challenges faced filming ‘Four Daughters’

LOS ANGELES: After winning the L’Oeil d’or award for best documentary following its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s movie “Four Daughters” will now screen at Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival.

Ben Hania is no stranger to critical acclaim and saw her 2020 feature "The Man Who Sold His Skin" nominated at the Academy Awards in the best international feature film category. Tunisia has now submitted her latest film in the same category for the 2024 Oscars, with the nominations yet to be announced. 

She spoke to Arab News about the challenges involved in filming the flick.



She said: “It’s not about one scene or another. It’s about how to translate all the complexity of this story, all the layers of this story, because it’s a movie about motherhood.

“It’s a movie about transmission between generations, transmission of trauma also. It’s a movie about Tunisia. All those themes were very important to me.”

The film tells the true story of Olfa Hamrouni, a heart-broken Tunisian mother of four daughters. The two eldest, aged 15 and 16, disappear in 2015 after being radicalized by extremists.

Ben Hania started working on “Four Daughters” in 2016, when she first heard the story on the news in Tunisia.

“I started thinking about making a documentary about it. But when I met Olfa and her daughters, I thought that I could do a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It took me some years to come up with the actual form of the movie,” she added.

Professional actresses filled in for the missing sisters, while renowned Egyptian actress Hend Sabri replaced Hamrouni as memories started to weigh heavy on the mom. This created a unique hybrid of fiction and documentary in the co-production between Tunisia, France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.  

Ben Hania said: “I needed actresses in the movie directed by the real character so we could summon the past and have access to their trauma.

“It’s Olfa who gave me the idea because she’s a huge fan of Hend Sabri, so I thought it would be very interesting to ask Hend to play Olfa and be directed by her.

“The shooting was very intense because it’s a real story. It’s not an easy life. So, it was very intense, but also it was funny, because they are really funny.

“Their way to cope with this tragedy is to laugh about it, which was really amazing, so we were laughing and crying,” she added.

Naomi Campbell stuns at Red Sea film premiere of ‘The Absence of Eden’

Naomi Campbell stuns at Red Sea film premiere of ‘The Absence of Eden’
Updated 03 December 2023

Naomi Campbell stuns at Red Sea film premiere of ‘The Absence of Eden’

Naomi Campbell stuns at Red Sea film premiere of ‘The Absence of Eden’

JEDDAH: British supermodel Naomi Campbell was among the many celebrities spotted on the red carpet at the MENA premiere of “The Absence of Eden,” on the third day of Jeddah’s Red Sea International Film Festival.

“I love what Red Sea has become and that it’s growing and growing and growing. And it’s really amazing and phenomenal what the team and Mo (Al-Turki) and Jomana (Al-Rashid) have created,” said Campbell in a video posted on the RSIFF Instagram page.

Starring Marvel actress Zoe Saldana, best known for her role in “The Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Absence of Eden” marks the feature directing debut of her renowned artist husband Marco Perego. The duo was also spotted at the screening. Also gracing the red carpet was the film’s other star, Garrett Hedlund.

Hedlund plays an ICE agent struggling with the moral dilemmas of his job who unites with an undocumented woman fighting to escape a ruthless cartel, played by Saldana, to save the life of an innocent girl.

The Red Sea festival runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 9 and boasts 11 categories of films.  

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 Lucia,” “The OA”).  

The festival began with a gala screening of Dubai-based Iraqi director Yasir Al-Yasiri’s “HWJN,” modelled 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.

Lebanese actress 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.”

Dhafer L’Abidine on ‘To My Son’ and the magic of Saudi Arabia’s Abha 

Dhafer L’Abidine on ‘To My Son’ and the magic of Saudi Arabia’s Abha 
Updated 03 December 2023

Dhafer L’Abidine on ‘To My Son’ and the magic of Saudi Arabia’s Abha 

Dhafer L’Abidine on ‘To My Son’ and the magic of Saudi Arabia’s Abha 
  • The Tunisian filmmaker and actor’s latest feature was shot in Saudi Arabia, but will ‘resonate anywhere’ 

DUBAI: There are two things that cinema can do better than any other form of artistic expression. First, it allows us to immerse ourselves in parts of the world we’ve never seen, and second, it empowers us to empathize with people we’ve never met. Tunisian megastar Dhafer L’Abidine’s lyrical directorial effort “To My Son,” which will hold its world premiere on December 3 at the Red Sea International Film Festival, excels at both. After scoring a huge global distribution deal the night the fest began, it is now poised to introduce the world to a part of Saudi Arabia never before immortalized on the big screen.  

For L’Abidine, a cross-cultural performer who has long been one of Arab film and television’s most beloved stars, the Saudi-set film is a “love letter” to a country that has fully embraced him. It also marks a welcome return to a festival that helped launched the now-thriving next phase of his career, after his debut feature, the unforgettable politically-charged drama “Ghodwa,” screened to great acclaim at RSIFF 2021.  

But while his last film was a deeply personal exploration of his home country’s political landscape in the wake of the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, “To My Son,” in which he also stars as a British-Saudi father named Feisal, is a leap outside of his lived experience — which has filled the 51-year-old with a range of emotions ahead of the film’s premiere. 

“I’m thrilled to debut ‘To My Son’ in Jeddah. It’s exciting to share this story with this amazing community, a film that aims to capture humanity as well as the beauty of this astounding place. But there’s also a bit of excited nervousness, to be honest, because it’s so different from anything I’ve attempted before,” L’Abidine tells Arab News. 

Tunisian megastar Dhafer L’Abidine in his debut feature ‘Ghodwa,’ which screened at RSIFF in 2021. (Supplied)

“My last film was about Tunisia, it was an idea born from my own culture. But with this film, I’m exploring a place I’m still discovering even years after first coming here. That carries with it a huge responsibility, which I kept at the front in my mind while making it. I knew that I had to do right by this place, these people, and this culture. It’s always challenging to step out of your comfort zone, but I’m always most attracted to making the choices that feel the least safe and easy, because that’s where I thrive,” he continues.  

The film is set primarily in the Abha, a lush, mountainous city in the southwest of the Kingdom that is beloved by Saudis but largely unknown to an international community that has only just begun to explore the country. L’Abidine first found himself there three years ago filming a hit MBC series and was amazed by the place.  

“I really didn’t know what I was in for. You have certain clichés in your head about Saudi Arabia, and then suddenly you find yourself in the middle of these huge green mountains, all with a very distinct quality to them, and so many historical places to discover. You feel really feel you’re somewhere unlike anywhere else in the world. After I left, I couldn’t get this place out of my head,” he explains.  

Dhafer L'Abidine on the set of ‘To My Son.’ (Supplied)

After the release of “Ghodwa,” L’Abidine was meeting with a producer friend, who was himself considering doing a film in Saudi Arabia. He and L’Abidine began to brainstorm, coming up with an idea that became the bones of the story that the film now explores — the story of a Saudi man living in London who, still mourning the death of his wife, decides to return with his son to the home he left 12 years ago. The man’s father, however, still resents him for having left the family, and refuses to accept him back into the fold.  

“As we sat there and explored the concept, it became clear we needed to really highlight that these are people from two different worlds. And Jeddah and Riyadh — as they’re so cosmopolitan and modern — couldn’t capture that difference. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this needs to be set in Abha.’ I was brought back to this place that I fell in love with that helped me see Saudi Arabia in a different way and I knew that would be valuable to this story, so I went away to write and it all developed from there,” says L’Abidine.  


While Abha helped inspire the story, what became more important to L’Abidine as he developed the film was that it not become a glorified travelogue or tourism campaign. The place, rather, had to serve as a character of sorts on its own, one that could help bring viewers deeper into the emotional journey of the people that live in it. And as he got further into his research of the place’s history, it he realized how universal their struggles really are.  

“Ultimately, this film is an exploration of the humanity that we all share within us, no matter where we’re from. They could be from Abha, Jeddah, Tunis, or Marrakesh. I wanted to make a film that would resonate anywhere, a film that shows that the struggles of the people of Abha — a place cinema has never taken us — are rooted in the same shared experiences that define us all as human beings. We all share stories like this, and the more we focus on that, the closer it brings us,” says L’Abidine.  

In zooming in on characters locked in the struggle between individual fulfillment and duty to family, and in exploring generational divides that require honest discussion in order to get to the heart of what divides them, L’Abidine soon realized this wasn’t just a story about Saudi Arabia, or Arab societies. It was a story about all of us, even himself.  

Quickly, it became clear to him that once again he was making a film about fathers and their children, this time at a period in his life when he is raising a 13-year-old daughter in London who is herself growing up in a world so different that which shaped him back in Tunisia. In the end, as much as he thought he was stepping outside of himself to find the truths of another culture, many of the answers were to be found in his own experience all along.  

“Storytelling is always personal, whether you intend it to be or not. There’s so much in our heads that we have to resolve. And in raising my daughter, there’s so many lessons I’ve had to learn, so much perspective I’ve gained,” says L’Abidine. “I wanted to explore that journey through the main character from both sides, because I think so many people can relate. We all share stories like this.”