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.
“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.