The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 

The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 
‘Hajjan’ is directed by Abu Bakr Shawky. (Supplied)
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Updated 30 November 2023
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The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 

The local filmmakers on show in RSIFF’s ‘Arab Spectacular’ section 

‘Hajjan’ 

Director: Abu Bakr Shawky 

Starring: Omar Al-Atawi, Azzam Nemr, Toleen Barbood 

Matar is the youngest child in a family of camel jockeys. When his brother falls in a race and is killed, Matar steps up to save his own camel, Hofara, from the butcher, beginning a potentially deadly trek through the desert in search of a better life. “This is a Saudi film, but it’s so universal,” Egyptian director Abu Bakr Shawky told Arab News in August. “The deeper we got into exploring this world, the more I found themes that are at the heart of great global storytelling; ideas of vengeance, of love, of running away from your problems and finding your destiny.” 

‘HWJN’ 

Director: Yasir Al-Yasiri 

Starring: Alanoud Saud, Nour Alkhadra 

The Iraqi director’s fantasy movie — based on the best-selling novel by Saudi writer Ibraheem Abbas — was given the honor of opening the festival on Nov. 30 (it also screens Dec. 1). “Hwjn” is set in a world where djinn are living invisibly among humans. The titular djinn and his family are disturbed when a human family moves into their Jeddah home, but he soon becomes fascinated by them, particularly Sawsan, played by Nour Alkhadra. Alkhadra told Arab News that she landed the part after sending Al-Yasiri a tape of her playing out scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” 

‘Fever Dream’ 

Director: Faris Godus 

Starring: Sohayb Godus, Najm, Hakeem Jomah 

Expectations are high for the latest from the Godus brothers after the success of their debut feature “The Book of Sun,” which was picked up by Netflix. “Fever Dream” focuses on Abdulsamad, a former football star with a bad reputation who tries to mend his awkward relationship with his daughter Ahlam so that she will help him manage his reputation on social media and rebuild his fame in a positive light. They partner with a high-profile PR team and move into real-estate marketing. But as Abdulsamad’s fame grows, he discovers it’s not quite what he dreamed it would be. 

‘Naga’ 

Director: Meshal Aljaser 

Starring: Adwa Bader, Yazeed Almaiyul 

Bader was officially recognized as one of the Rising Stars at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Naga” premiered. Bader plays Sarah, whose conservative father approves a shopping trip, on condition that she abide by a strict curfew. That ‘shopping trip’ is actually a cover story for Sarah’s secret date with Saad at a party in the desert, which quickly turns into a disaster, with Sarah stranded miles from home and in a desperate race against the clock to avoid her father’s ire. TIFF programmer Peter Kuplowsky said the film “blew me away with its shocking prologue” and that Meshal “was navigating so many provocative themes, and never at the expense of character or momentum.” 

‘Yesterday After Tomorrow’ 

Director: Abdulghani Alsaigh 

Starring: Ismael Al-Hassan, Ahmad Alsadam 

Alsaigh’s sci-fi movie is the story of two brothers living with their widowed mother having moved back into their childhood home. There, they discover a portal to the past — to a time when their father, whom they never met, was still alive. But the longer they stay there and try to connect with him, the harder it will be to reunite with their mother in the present. Meanwhile, distressed by their disappearance, she teams up with her best friend to try and discover what happened to them. 

‘Khaled El-Sheikh: Between the Thorns of Art and Politics’ 

Director: Jamal Kutbi 

Starring: Khaled El-Sheikh, Samawa El-Sheikh 

Kutbi’s documentary focuses on the famed Bahraini singer Khaled El-Sheikh, whose appetite for pushing musical boundaries has seen him richly rewarded, but also brought opprobrium from audiences uncomfortable with innovation. Kutbi follows El-Sheikh’s rise to stardom from his time as a university student in Kuwait studying economics and politics before dropping out to focus on music. 


‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side

‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side
Updated 17 April 2024
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‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side

‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side
  • ‘Suffs’ is a Broadway musical that focuses on the American women’s suffrage movement
  • Pakistani Nobel laureate says musical helped her see her activism from a “new lens“

NEW YORK: Shaina Taub was in the audience at “Suffs,” her buzzy and timely new musical about women’s suffrage, when she spied something that delighted her.
It was intermission, and Taub, both creator and star, had been watching her understudy perform at a matinee preview last week. Suddenly, she saw audience members searching the Wikipedia pages of key figures portrayed in the show: women like Ida B. Wells, Inez Milholland and Alice Paul, who not only spearheaded the suffrage fight but also wrote the Equal Rights Amendment ( still not law, but that’s a whole other story).
“I was like, that’s my goal, exactly that!” Taub, who plays Paul, said from her dressing room later. “Do everything I can to make you fall in love with these women, root for them, care about them. So that was a really satisfying moment to witness.”
Satisfying but sobering, too. Fact is, few audience members know much about the American suffrage movement. So the all-female creative team behind “Suffs,” which had a high-profile off-Broadway run and opens Thursday on Broadway with extensive revisions, knows they’re starting from zero.
It’s an opportunity, says Taub, who studied social movements — but not suffrage — at New York University. But it’s also a huge challenge: How do you educate but also entertain?
One member of the “Suffs” team has an especially poignant connection to the material. That would be producer Hillary Clinton.
She was, of course, the first woman to win the US presidential nomination of a major party, and the first to win the popular vote. But Clinton says she never studied the suffrage movement in school, even at Wellesley. Only later in life did she fill in the gap, including a visit as first lady to Seneca Falls, home to the first American women’s rights convention some 70 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the vote.
“I became very interested in women’s history through my own work, and writing and reading,” Clinton told The Associated Press. And so, seeing “Suffs” off-Broadway, “I was thrilled because it just helps to fill a big gap in our awareness of the long, many-decades struggle for suffrage.”
It was Taub who wrote Clinton, asking her to come on board. “I thought about it for a nanosecond,” Clinton says, “and decided absolutely, I wanted to help lift up this production.” A known theater lover, Clinton describes traveling often to New York as a college student and angling for discounts, often seeing only the second act, when she could get in for free. “For years, I’d only seen the second act of ‘Hair,’” she quips.
Clinton then reached out to Malala Yousafzai, whom Taub also hoped to engage as a producer. As secretary of state, Clinton had gotten to know the Pakistani education activist who was shot by a Taliban gunman at age 15. Clinton wanted Yousafzai to know she was involved and hoped the Nobel Peace Prize winner would be, too.
“I’m thrilled,” Clinton says of Yousafzai’s involvement, “because yes, this is an American story, but the pushback against women’s rights going on at this moment in history is global.”
Yousafzai had also seen the show, directed by Leigh Silverman, and loved it. She, too, has been a longtime fan of musicals, though she notes her own acting career began and ended with a school skit in Pakistan, playing a not-very-nice male boss. Her own education about suffrage was limited to “one or two pages in a history book that talked about the suffrage movement in the UK,” where she’d moved for medical treatment.
“I still had no idea about the US side of the story,” Yousafzai told the AP. It was a struggle among conflicting personalities, and a clash over priorities between older and younger activists but also between white suffragists and those of color — something the show addresses with the searing “Wait My Turn,” sung by Nikki M. James as Wells, the Black activist and journalist.
“This musical has really helped me see activism from a different lens,” says Yousafzai. “I was able to take a deep breath and realize that yes, we’re all humans and it requires resilience and determination, conversation, open-mindedness … and along the way you need to show you’re listening to the right perspectives and including everyone in your activism.”
When asked for feedback by the “Suffs” team, Yousafzai says she replied that she loved the show just as it was. (She recently paid a visit to the cast, and toured backstage.) Clinton, who has attended rehearsals, quips: “I sent notes, because I was told that’s what producers do.”
Clinton adds: “I love the changes. It takes a lot of work to get the storytelling right — to decide what should be sung versus spoken, how to make sure it’s not just telling a piece of history, but is entertaining.”
Indeed, the off-Broadway version was criticized by some as feeling too much like a history lesson. The new version feels faster and lighter, with a greater emphasis on humor — even in a show that details hunger strikes and forced feedings.
One moment where the humor shines through: a new song titled “Great American Bitch” that begins with a suffragist noting a man had called her, well, a bitch. The song reclaims the word with joy and laughter. Taub says this moment — and another where an effigy of President Woodrow Wilson (played by Grace McLean, in a cast that’s all female or nonbinary) is burned — has been a hit with audiences.
“As much as the show has changed,” she says, “the spine of it is the same. A lot of what I got rid of was just like clearing brush.”
Most of the original cast has returned. Jenn Colella plays Carrie Chapman Catt, an old-guard suffragist who clashed with the younger Paul over tactics and timing. James returns as Wells, while Milholland, played by Phillipa Soo off-Broadway, is now played by Hannah Cruz.
Given its parallels to a certain Lin-Manuel Miranda blockbuster about the Founding Fathers, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the show has been dubbed “Hermilton” by some.
“I have to say,” Clinton says of Taub, “I think she’s doing for this part of American history what Lin did for our founders — making it alive, approachable, understandable. I’m hoping ‘Suffs’ has the same impact ‘Hamilton’ had.”
That may seem a tall order, but producers have been buoyed by audience reaction. “They’re laughing even more than we thought they would at the parts we think are funny, and cheering at other parts,” Clinton says.
A particular cheer comes at the end, when Paul proposes the ERA. 
“A cast member said, ‘Who’d have ever thought the Equal Rights Amendment would get cheers in a Broadway theater?’” Clinton recalls.
One clear advantage the show surely has: timeliness. During the off-Broadway run, news emerged the Supreme Court was preparing to overturn Roe vs. Wade, fueling a palpable sense of urgency in the audience. The Broadway run begins as abortion rights are again in the news — and a key issue in the presidential election only months away.
Taub takes the long view. She’s been working on the show for a decade, and says something’s always happening to make it timely.
“I think,” she muses, “it just shows the time is always right to learn about women’s history.”


Gulf Cinema Festival celebrates region’s rising stars

The fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh is taking place this week. (Huda Bashatah)
The fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh is taking place this week. (Huda Bashatah)
Updated 17 April 2024
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Gulf Cinema Festival celebrates region’s rising stars

The fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh is taking place this week. (Huda Bashatah)
  • ‘We learn from each other,’ Omani director Muzna Almusafer says
  • Success of industry ‘enhances Kingdom’s soft power on global stage,’ Saudi director Musab Alamri says

RIYADH: Leading lights and rising stars from the region’s blossoming film industry have been gathering this week at the fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh.

Among them is Omani director Muzna Almusafer, whose movie “Clouds” is in the running for a prize of SR50,000 ($13,300) in the shorts category.

Set in southern Oman, the film tells the story of a war veteran and widower as he navigates the crossroads of societal expectations and his values.

“It was a dream for me at the beginning, to write such a story … something very sensible, something very honest, something from my own life and what I encountered in my life,” Almusafer told Arab News.

“I don’t know if I will win, but I’m winning this,” she said. “I’m winning knowing you, knowing people. For me, this is an honor and this is a win itself.”

Speaking about the movie industry in Oman and Saudi Arabia, she said: “We learn from each other. It’s not about who is first and who is second. It’s about who can reflect better and who can say things better. And better is always depending on us as people, how we look at things and depending on the audience.

“As artists, we can teach people how to look at life from a different point of view.”

Two of the keys to the success of the region’s movie industry were funding and drive, she said.

“Funding is the first thing, because when you want to pay actors, when you want to pay a scriptwriter, it’s always money at the beginning.

“But then also your drive. It has to be lit all the time. You should have this fire inside you. You shouldn’t stop. Once you stop, you don’t have it. So it’s important that you continue and you know and you learn.”

Saudi movie director and critic Musab Alamri said the landscape of cinema in the region was changing.

“Previously, the UAE held the top position in box office sales. However, since 2022, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the leader in ticket sales revenue. Saudi Arabia now holds the top spot in the MENA region and ranks 14th globally in terms of revenue generation,” he told Arab News.

Where Qatar and the UAE were once the leaders in financial support for movie projects, Saudi Arabia was now in the driving seat, he said.

“Saudi Arabia has witnessed the emergence of significant financing opportunities, including the Red Sea International Festival Fund, the Cultural Development Fund, Daw Film and production support programs at the Ithra Center.”

The film “Norah” by Tawfik Alzaidi was an example of how far the industry had come, Alamri said.

The film, which received funding from the Saudi Film Commission under its Daw initiative, garnered a nomination for this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, he said.

“Such successes highlight the significant impact of these programs in fostering the growth and recognition of Saudi cinema on the international stage.”

Despite a decline in feature production across the Gulf, the Saudi film industry was riding high, Alamri said.

“Throughout the past year and into the first quarter of 2024, there has been a monthly release of Saudi films in cinemas and on digital platforms such as Netflix. Saudi cinema has also gained prominence in international film festivals, with six Saudi feature films showcased at the recent edition of the Red Sea International Festival.

“This surge in Saudi cinema not only contributes to the local economy but also enhances Saudi Arabia’s soft power on the global stage.

“I anticipate that within the next eight to 10 years, Saudi Arabia will achieve self-sufficiency in film production, eliminating the need for direct government support. Saudi films will garner significant recognition at prestigious international festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto and Berlin.”

Saudi actor Baraa Alem said government initiatives, local and regional film festivals and the rise of independent filmmakers had all contributed to the “cultural richness” of the region’s movie industry.

The recognition received by movies like “Norah” and “Four Daughters,” which was supported by the Red Sea Fund and nominated for an Academy Award, was evidence of “that hard work,” he said.

Speaking about the Gulf Film Festival, he said: “By providing a forum for filmmakers, industry professionals and audiences to connect and engage, the festival not only celebrates the region’s cinematic achievements but also stimulates dialogue, creativity and innovation … (and contributes) to the continued growth and development of the Gulf film industry.

“As filmmakers from the gulf we share similar cultural values and identities.”

The festival ends on Thursday.


Johnny Depp appears at UK premiere of Saudi-backed film ‘Jeanne du Barry’

Johnny Depp appears at UK premiere of Saudi-backed film ‘Jeanne du Barry’
Updated 17 April 2024
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Johnny Depp appears at UK premiere of Saudi-backed film ‘Jeanne du Barry’

Johnny Depp appears at UK premiere of Saudi-backed film ‘Jeanne du Barry’

DUBAI: US actor Johnny Depp said he felt “strangely, oddly, perversely lucky” to have been offered the role of French King Louis XV at the UK premiere of his new film “Jeanne du Barry.”

Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Festival Foundation provided post-production support for the period drama, marking the first time the foundation co-produced a French movie.

Depp was accompanied by the film’s co-star and director Maïwenn on stage at the Curzon theater in Mayfair, where the duo briefly introduced the film.

“I feel very lucky to have been [offered the role] – strangely, oddly, perversely lucky,” he said on stage in London, according to Variety. “Because when Maïwenn and I first actually met and talked about the notion of me doing the film and playing Louis XV, the King of France — see that’s when instantly what happens in your brain is you instantly go back to Kentucky, where, like, everything is fried. So you realise that you’ve come from the bellybutton of nowhere and suddenly you end up playing the King of France.”

 


Egyptian film ‘East of Noon’ heads to Cannes

Egyptian film ‘East of Noon’ heads to Cannes
Updated 17 April 2024
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Egyptian film ‘East of Noon’ heads to Cannes

Egyptian film ‘East of Noon’ heads to Cannes

DUBAI: Egyptian director Hala Elkoussy’s film “East of Noon” has been selected for screening at the Cannes Film Festival Directors’ Fortnight, selected by artistic director Julien Rejl as part of an international line-up of 21 films, putting the spotlight on global directors and their stories.

Rejl revealed the line-up at a press conference in Paris on Tuesday for the Cannes parallel section run by French directors’ guild the SRF.

Elkoussy’s “East of Noon” is one of eight films directed or co-directed by women among the 21 films selected this year.

 


Saudi Arabia’s Wadi AlFann opens Venice Art Biennale presence with book launch

Saudi Arabia’s Wadi AlFann opens Venice Art Biennale presence with book launch
Updated 17 April 2024
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Saudi Arabia’s Wadi AlFann opens Venice Art Biennale presence with book launch

Saudi Arabia’s Wadi AlFann opens Venice Art Biennale presence with book launch

DUBAI: Wadi AlFann, Saudi Arabia’s major new cultural destination for art, design and performance, is presenting a showcase titled “Journeys in Land Art, Towards Wadi AlFann, AlUla” during the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

The showcase spotlights the first five artists commissioned for Wadi AlFann: Manal Al-Dowayan, Agnes Denes, Michael Heizer, Ahmed Mater and James Turrell.

On April 19, Wadi AlFann Publications is also launching books by Al-Dowayan and US artist Mark Dion titled “Oasis of Stories” and “The Desert Field Guide.”

The duo will host a panel discussion to delve into their books, exploring how participation is fundamental to their practice as well as delivering insights on the desert.

Wadi AlFann, AlUla. (Supplied)

Meanwhile, a series of renders, drawings, maquettes and interviews, including drawings gathered by Al-Dowayan — the artist representing Saudi Arabia at La Biennale di Venezia 2024 — through her participatory workshops with communities across AlUla, are being displayed at the event in Venice.

A series of studies by Mater revealing the artist’s plans for his Wadi AlFann commission titled “Ashab Al-Lal” are also on display.

The installation, inspired by the scientific and philosophical thinkers of the Islamic Golden Age, aims to explore the mythic space between subjective imagination and objective reality.

Nora Al-Dabal, executive director of arts and creative industries at the Royal Commission for AlUla, said in a statement: “We are delighted to introduce Wadi AlFann to Venice, during the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, through the Wadi AlFann showcase.”

She added: “It provides a glimpse at the journey toward AlUla’s new global destination for land art. Visionary arts initiatives like Wadi AlFann play a crucial role in AlUla’s development strategy, and we cannot wait for you to see it in person.”

Guided tours will be available at the biennale from April 18-20 and from April 25-27.

Wadi AlFann will bring compelling artwork from around the world to AlUla, the desert region of northwest Saudi Arabia steeped in thousands of years of natural, historical and cultural heritage.