Tunisian-Moroccan production ‘Backstage’ explores inner lives of multinational dance troupe

Tunisian-Moroccan production ‘Backstage’ explores inner lives of multinational dance troupe
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“Backstage” premiered at the Red Sea International Film festival on Monday night. (AN/ Huda Bashatah)
Tunisian-Moroccan production ‘Backstage’ explores inner lives of multinational dance troupe
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“Backstage” premiered at the Red Sea International Film festival on Monday night. (AN/ Huda Bashatah)
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Updated 06 December 2023
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Tunisian-Moroccan production ‘Backstage’ explores inner lives of multinational dance troupe

Tunisian-Moroccan production ‘Backstage’ explores inner lives of multinational dance troupe

JEDDAH: Set against the backdrop of the majestic Atlas Mountains, “Backstage” — the Tunisian-Moroccan production from husband-wife duo Khalil Benkirane and Afef Ben Mahmoud that premiered at the Red Sea International Film festival on Monday night — is a story that contains multitudes. 

Following a fateful night in the lives of a slowly unraveling but close-knit dance troupe, “Backstage” manages to touch on topics such as displacement, climate change, body autonomy, found family, the institution of marriage, and more; all the while slowly zooming the lens into the inner lives of its main characters, all 10 of them.  

Speaking to Arab News at the sidelines of the festival in Jeddah, co-director Ben Mahmoud — who also stars in the film as one of its central characters Aida — says that she began working on the script for the film in 2016. 

“I began my artistic career as a dancer, then stage actor, then actress for cinema and TV. And this journey through all these life arts, of course made a huge impression in my life. And when I moved to cinema, my goal was to bring these two worlds of cinema and dance together because, for me, they are both not that far. And I love them both,” she said.  

Co-director and husband Benkirane said: “I would come home from from work and she would update me as to the new scenes she was working on. My job does not allow me to really get my creative parts, really start the script. But this way worked really, really well. And we usually get on the same wavelength when we watch films. So, it was a beautiful collaboration.”  

“And what I liked about the script is that it has a normal, straight line as far as the development of the narrative. But the structure allowed us to inject certain things that we are concerned with, such as the environment, the right for women to use their body as a tool of work, challenging the notion of marriage, which in the Arab world is so dear to tradition, immigration and going back to the place of origin, which does not satisfy anymore because you have become something else,” he said.  




(AN/ Huda Bashatah) 

The cast, a mix of actors and dancers, features names from across the Arab world including Sofiane Ouissi, Ali Thabet, Abdallah Badis, Salima Abdelwahab, Nassim Baddag and Saleh Bakri. The film also stars dancer Hajjiba Fahmy, who is known for her extensive work with US superstar Beyonce.  

But the most prominent name to jump out from the cast and crew is that of award-winning Belgian choreographer and dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who makes his acting debut with “Backstage.” 

“Dance is really dear to my heart but it is also not always well represented in cinema. And there are only three dance scenes. But even if we have only three scenes, for me it was extremely important to have a big figure because this is going to give more visibility and credibility to what we are trying to do,” Ben Mahmoud said.  

“And it was extremely important for us to have someone such as Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and we were so lucky to talk to him and to convince him to be with us. And we were lucky because he’s extremely generous and we really collaborated together. We gave him the script, he worked on the script, and we didn’t know what he was going to do with the choreography. But when we saw the movement and how it was so linked to the narrative and how much they give this expression through the body to tell everything without words — this was really amazing,” she said. 


Georgina Rodriguez stars in new campaign for Arab lenses brand

Georgina Rodriguez stars in new campaign for Arab lenses brand
Updated 15 sec ago
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Georgina Rodriguez stars in new campaign for Arab lenses brand

Georgina Rodriguez stars in new campaign for Arab lenses brand

DUBAI: Argentine model Georgina Rodriguez is starring in another campaign for Arab brand Amara Lenses, whose products are available in the Gulf region.

In the short clip, posted on the brand’s Instagram page on Thursday, the Netflix star was spotted sporting the company’s brown and grey lenses.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amara Lenses (@amaralenses)

In one shot, she was seen wearing face accessories inspired by the Gulf region’s burqa.  

“Introducing our latest collection in collaboration with Georgina Rodriguez,” the brand captioned the post on Instagram.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amara Lenses (@amaralenses)

Rodriguez, who is now based in Saudi Arabia with her partner Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo and their children, was named the brand ambassador in March 2023.

“I’m so happy to be the face of Amara Lenses and it’s been wonderful to work with you,” she said in a video shared on the brand’s Instagram page at the time.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Amara Lenses (@amaralenses)

Amara Lenses has previously collaborated with regional influencers including Saudi Arabian makeup artist Shouq Artist, Kuwaiti fashion blogger Fouz Al-Fahad, Bahraini content creator Zainab Al-Alwan, Kuwaiti influencer Fatima Al-Momen, and Egyptian actress Nour Ghandou.

The Arab brand sells lenses in various shades of grey, brown, green and blue.


Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 

Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 
Updated 01 March 2024
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Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 

Meet the stars of Netflix’s hit ‘Camel Quest’ 
  • How two childhood friends made their newfound love for camels the heart of a Netflix hit 

LONDON: It takes a certain level of trust to go into business with your best friend. It takes an even greater degree of faith to do so in an industry that is new to both of you. And it takes a crazy amount of love and commitment to document that journey together and showcase it to audiences around the world.  

But ‘a crazy amount of love and commitment’ is a pretty good way to sum up the relationship between childhood friends Safwan Modir and Omar Almaeena, the stars of comedy docuseries “Camel Quest,” which premiered on Netflix at the start of February and went straight into the streaming service’s regional top 10. The show sees the duo travel across Saudi Arabia in a bid to reach the Crown Prince Camel Festival, learning more about the revered animal — and themselves — along the way.  

Key to the show’s success is the fact that Modir and Almaeena, now 40, have known each other for more than half their lives. 

Safwan Modir (L) and Omar Almaeena (center) shooting “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

“We met when we were 16,” says Modir. “We met at a mutual friend’s house, and we clicked immediately. We’ve been good friends since then. Omar was studying in the United States, so we used to talk through Messenger or phone calls, and then every time he came back to Saudi, we would do crazy things. And we were always dreaming of doing something together as we grew up.” 

And while no obvious opportunity to work together presented itself — “Saf went into being a hotelier,” Almaeena recalls, “and I was bouncing around trying to figure out what I was good at” — that desire to create a project together never went away. The pair’s separate careers continued to develop. Modir became the youngest Saudi general manager of a five-star hotel, and Almaeena became a seasoned entrepreneur with a series of successful startups. 

“Omar came back after COVID,” Modir recalls, “and he had been bitten by the bug of entrepreneurship. He came to the hotel to visit, and he saw the setup, and he said to me: ‘Safwan, I think we should do something together.’ That’s when everything started to cook.” 

Omar Almaeena (center) and Safwan Modir. (Supplied)

That ‘something’ turned out to be the camel business — an industry that, Almaeena admits, he “wasn’t very keen on” at first. “But we found it to be a very lovely world that can be passionate and loving towards the camels, yet also financially viable if done properly.” 

“There was a lot of movement in the camel world,” Modir adds. “It’s going in a similar direction to the horse industry — it’s becoming super-fancy; you have beauty competitions, you have races, you have competitions all over the world, with royalty attending. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed love camels, and one of the objectives of Saudi Vision 2030 is to take the camel industry to the next level — to the level of the horse industry and maybe even beyond. 

“And,” he adds with a laugh, “it’s something that we had absolutely no clue about. We had never seen camels (up close) in our lives. So that was a challenge. It took me time to convince Omar that there was an opportunity here.” 

Omar Almaeena (L) and Safwan Modir in their Netflix show “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

And therein lies the second reason the pair have had such success. Modir and Almaeena share the kind of comedic chemistry that can’t be workshopped or choregraphed — and the kind of trust that convinces two successful men to leave their existing careers and start something new together. 

“The fear was there, but the support from my family, especially my wife, was there too,” says Modir. “And having my best friend beside me made it easier.” 

The two started the Redsea Camel Company — a camel breeding farm (and soon to be racing stable) in Al Qassim — powered by their collective experience and ceaseless enthusiasm. And it’s been such a rewarding experience that Almaeena suggested making a TV show about it. So, looking back now, was he scared too? 

“No, no, no…” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve done this so many times, and I’ve failed so many times, what’s one more…?”  

Omar Almaeena (L) and Safwan Modir in “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

The chuckle is swiftly upgraded to a full-blown laugh from both men — something that happens a lot during their conversation with us. “There’s trust there, that was so important. I can’t lie, and I don’t know how to sugarcoat things.” 

Despite the fact that they had as much experience with TV production as they had previously had with camels — i.e. none — the pair made smart decisions, surrounding themselves with professionals who could help them tell their story. Director Tarek Bou Chebel, creative directors Rana Sabbagha and Amin Dora (who also served as showrunner) bought in, convinced as much by the relationship between the two friends as by the concept for the show — which wound up being perfectly timed with the Saudi Ministry of Culture’s declaration of 2024 as the Year of the Camel. 

They started filming in November 2021, and finished in the first weeks of 2022. The pair recall being scared on the morning of the first day, but that getting the first shot in the can did a lot to calm their nerves — not to mention those of the director.  

“We thought we would be repeating that first scene 20 times,” says Modir. “But we did it, and the director said we were amazing. And that he had been worried, but that we had surprised him.” 

“He came clean afterwards,” Almaeena says with a laugh. “He said we were naturals. That gave us a lot of confidence.” 

Safwan Modir (top) and Omar Almaeena in a promo shoot for “Camel Quest.” (Supplied)

Although the pair’s comedic chemistry is key to “Camel Quest,” it was important that the real stars of the show were given the respect they deserved. 

“The joke is always on us, as it should be,” says Almaeena. “There have been instances in the past where the joke was on the camel, and it wasn’t very well received.” 

“The joke is about Omar pranking me,” adds Modir. “Just like when we were kids. But it’s never about the camels; we were very careful to take that into consideration.” 

“The (idea) is to build this business, and to understand how it takes us across Saudi Arabia to see the camels in different cities,” Almaeena continues. “To see the beauty contests, to see camels raised for milk, or for meat. You see all the different variations. But the point is, whoever has them, you see the ultimate love for this animal.” 

The pair insist they didn’t fall out during the trip — Modir, when pressed, slightly amends this and says it did happen once, but only because Almaeena cancelled his food order — and they would love to do a second series. But that’s only the start of their plans for their camel empire. 

“The breeding program has shot up now, and Saf’s come up with some brilliant ideas for the program and getting people involved,” Almaeena explains. “People are signing up to buy camels from us, and we’re close to finalizing the racing team, which will have its first race in May. And we have one movie hopefully close to preproduction, and another in the pipeline.” 

But in all of these projects, one thing remains constant — and no wonder, given how well it’s served them thus far. 

“I’m handling the camels, and Omar is handling everything to do with the movies and production,” says Modir. “But, with all of these things, we’ll be doing it together.” 


Gaza-born artist Malak Mattar discusses ‘Last Breath’ painting 

Gaza-born artist Malak Mattar discusses ‘Last Breath’ painting 
Updated 01 March 2024
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Gaza-born artist Malak Mattar discusses ‘Last Breath’ painting 

Gaza-born artist Malak Mattar discusses ‘Last Breath’ painting 
  • The Gaza-born artist discusses her harrowing ‘Last Breath,’ which has drawn comparisons to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ 

DUBAI: “It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says London-based Palestinian artist Malak Mattar. The statement refers to her rectangular black-and-white painting, “Last Breath,” completed in February, and it is true both literally and metaphorically.  

“Last Breath” portrays hellish scenes unfolding in Mattar’s native city of Gaza, the target of Israeli military aggression since October last year. “I feel it summarizes a lot of things I want to say,” she tells Arab News.  

When the current war began, Mattar says she had no creative urge whatsoever. “It was like artistic paralysis: I couldn’t hold a piece of paper, or paint, or look at paintings. For me, nothing had meaning to be honest,” she explains.  

Malak Mattar is a London-based Palestinian artist. (Supplied)

But things started shifting when she spent December making more than 100 sketches, based on graphic photographs, on brown paper. They mostly portrayed victims of the Israeli bombardment, which began just days after Mattar returned to the UK from a visit to her hometown.  

Mattar spent a month creating “Last Breath,” using a ladder at times to work on the canvas, which is more than two meters high. During that month, there were two weeks when she didn’t hear from her family in Gaza.  

“It was a complete blackout — there were no messages, no calls, no news,” she recalls. “But that didn’t stop me. To keep painting a work like this, you have to pressure yourself. For a while, I blocked my feelings; the urgency and commitment that I had was bigger than any personal feelings I had.” 

The result is confrontational and compelling. Mattar has created an unflinching and disturbing scene of terrified faces, broken buildings and poignant graffiti that is hard to swallow. At the center of it all is a horse. It pulls a cart laden with household belongings — a mattress, a chair, blankets — as well as a dead body wrapped in white cloth. But there is also a young boy, alive, perched on the front of the cart. 

“The horse has a symbolism and a place in the current time of war,” Mattar explains. “Its role has changed from carrying fruits and vegetables to being an ambulance. There’s a strength and hardness to a horse, which is how I also see Gaza; I don’t see it as a weak place. In my memory, I think of it as a place that loves life. It always gets back on its feet after every war.” 

Mattar says the hardest section for her to paint was the image’s left side, which includes large, black birds picking at corpses.  

“The most shocking thing was how birds were eating martyrs’ bodies. Even the animals couldn’t find food,” says Mattar.  

The painting also notes the loss of cultural heritage, portraying how important landmarks, such as the Great Omari Mosque, the Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church and the Rashad Shawa Cultural Center have been severely damaged.  

And then there are the glimpses of children’s toys, indicating the loss of youth and innocence.  

“Inside every child there is an adult. When a child starts speaking as an adult, it’s dangerous,” says Mattar. “A whole generation hasn’t lived its childhood and adolescence.” 

“Last Breath” is difficult, uncomfortable viewing. Deliberately so. “It’s a very dark time and this painting is not about hope — not even an ounce of it,” Mattar says. “It’s not something we will ever recover from.”  

Some have said that the painting resembles Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica,” created during the Spanish Civil War, and also a response to the bombing of a city. Mattar was particularly flattered when a commentator called it “Guernica Al-Jadida” (the New Guernica).  

“Last Breath” is currently being stored in the vault of London’s National Gallery. It will be on display at a solo exhibition between Mar. 6 and 10 at Cromwell Place in the British capital. Mattar hopes the work will become a permanent part of a museum’s or public institution’s collection, but not a private one.  

“The goal for this work is for it to be seen,” she says. “It’s not for sale, because it’s impossible to put a price on it. For the first time, I feel like (my work) belongs to something bigger than me; it belongs to a bigger cause.” 


Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched

Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched
Updated 29 February 2024
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Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched

Saudi art on show as 17th edition of UAE fair launched
  • Jeddah-based Hafez Gallery will be showcasing rare black-and-white works on cardboard by Saudi artist Abdulsattar Al-Mussa
  • Jeddah’s Athr Gallery will be putting on a solo exhibition of works by Saudi artist Ayman Yossri Daydban

DUBAI: The 17th edition of Art Dubai will showcase works from more than 120 galleries around the world.

And Saudi artists will be among the participants in the international art fair running from March 1 to 3.

Jeddah-based Hafez Gallery will be showcasing rare black-and-white works on cardboard by Saudi artist Abdulsattar Al-Mussa.

Born in Al-Ahsa in 1955, and educated in the Soviet Union during the 1970s, his works were created in the 1980s and use thickly contoured lines to depict everyday scenes in his native Saudi Arabia.

The gallery’s curatorial director, Alexandra Stock, told Arab News: “People have been asking a lot of questions about Abdulsattar’s work. They’re very intrigued by the technique.

“I think it’s important to show Abdulsattar at Art Dubai because he has had a lot of success abroad, but it’s very nice that he is having another upwind, a push in the region, that he’s being acknowledged back home,” she said.

The fair’s sections cover contemporary, bawwaba, modern, and digital art.

In the contemporary part, a Hafez Gallery booth will be displaying the work of Saudi creative Bashaer Hawsawi, whose visual artwork has been constructed from dried palm leaves formed into patterns and figures.

She told Arab News: “I used to come to Art Dubai just to visit. Being here means a lot to me.”

Her exhibit, “Holy Thirst,” was inspired by her maternal family’s fashioning of palm fronds into everyday domestic tools.

Jeddah’s Athr Gallery will be putting on a solo exhibition of works by Saudi artist Ayman Yossri Daydban, who for decades has worked in a variety of mediums.

Some of the European galleries represented at the fair will also be highlighting artists from the Kingdom.

From Austria, Galerie Krinzinger will be displaying a piece by Maha Malluh, known for creating large installations made from items popular in bygone eras. Her long rectangular panel festooned with cassette tapes is part of her “Food For Thought” series in which she mounts countless objects on walls, many collected from markets in Saudi Arabia.

Madrid-based gallerist Sabrina Amrani has dedicated half of her booth to a selection of photographic, sculptural, and textile works by Saudi artist Manal Al-Dowayan, who will represent the Kingdom at the Venice Biennale in April.

Amrani told Arab News: “The feedback has been amazing. Manal is a very dear artist of Dubai. She had her studio here for many years, contributing to the arts scene greatly here. These works feel at home.”


Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire

Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire
Updated 29 February 2024
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Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire

Saudi fashion designer inspires futuristic cultural attire
  • Mohammed Al-Jishi is a self-taught fashion designer who uses his experience as an architect to create his own unique and eye-catching outfits
  • Al-Jishi: My background in architecture influences my approaches in creating fashion garments, mostly focusing on innovation, and how clothing interacts with the human body and space

RIYADH: Saudi fashion designer Mohammed Al-Jishi is known for thinking outside the box when it comes to his futuristic cultural designs.

Al-Jishi is a self-taught fashion designer who uses his experience as an architect to create his own unique and eye-catching outfits that draw attention every time he attends a big event.

“My background in architecture influences my approaches in creating fashion garments, mostly focusing on innovation, and how clothing interacts with the human body and space. I tend to think way beyond the box, which results in creating these unique attires,” said Al-Jishi.

Ever since he was a child, he has always been interested in fashion, but due to gender stereotypes in Saudi Arabia, this was only a pipe dream.

“As a young boy, society always related fashion to girls generally, so I wasn’t even allowed to think that I had a shot in the industry.”

However, he believed that getting into architectural studies would open doors for him in other design areas including fashion.

“I made the decision that I am not going to let what others expect from me define who I am. I pursued fashion, I started reading about it, watching fashion shows over and over, it was something I could do without boredom.”

After enrolling in multiple classes to improve his fashion sense, he began creating outfits for himself.

“I moved from the Eastern Province to Riyadh because the chances were higher to prove what I’m capable of doing. I started participating in the big events that are happening in Riyadh and thankfully they were successful experiences.”

Al-Jishi drew media attention to himself during the Saudi Cup by donning a unique outfit, which he claimed was influenced by Al-Soudah mountains in Abha.

“I had a great time in the Aseer region, especially in the city of Al-Soudah, which is famous for its beautiful views and mountains, known as the ‘City of Clouds’ due to its high mountain terrain. It was a great experience, there was one thing missing, that was wings, so I added wings to my outfit which were inspired by the traditional way of wearing the Masnaf. I hope that in the future it will be possible to fly above the clouds in the Abha to enjoy the maximum experience of its beauty,” Al-Jishi told Arab News.

He continued: “Therefore, I used traditional southern attire as a reference for the design and developed a way of wearing them in a futuristic, modern style in line with this year’s theme, the past and the future, In other words, heritage in the future.”

At the last Saudi Cup 2023, Al-Jishi wore a look that he imagined Saudi Arabia’s future city-dwellers might wear. He began to envision the traditional Saudi attire being elevated, and the result was an outfit inspired by the thobe, the mohazam, and the bisht. They have been redesigned to honor Saudi Arabia’s history and to demonstrate how quickly the country is developing.

“My design represents a creation that is traditional but modernized in a futuristic perspective,” said Al-Jishi.

He wore a satin black outfit during Riyadh Fashion Week, representing the black oil that the Kingdom is famous for.

“In this design, oil was used as a reference for inspiration to express its importance and impact on the Kingdom’s economy. Shiny organza fabric was used to symbolize oil and its luster and fluidity. Additionally, a golden belt made of iron was incorporated into the design to add an industrial touch, symbolizing oil as the black gold,” Al-Jishi said.

As for the silhouette, it is a sophisticated dramatic narrative inspired by the thobe chosen to represent and celebrate fashion from the region of the first Saudi state.

Al-Jishi approached the fashion industry with the goal of making a unique piece, which he saw as a challenge.

His attitude to fashion design is influenced by his architectural experience, producing clothes that are not only physically arresting but also take into account the human shape and how it interacts with its surroundings.

“I was initially trained to conceptualize and design buildings, the architecture brings a unique understanding of form and space to their new endeavor. The main approach is to think conceptually and tell a narrative through design that adds depth and meaning to the garment, not just something that looks good,” he said.

“All these designs are the beginning of what is coming,” Al-Jishi added.

He draws inspiration from the Kingdom’s past and portrays it in a futuristic way, which makes his creations stand out. He is now developing his own clothing line.