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.
“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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.’”
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.”