Yango Play launches in the GCC with bilingual AI assistant, Ramadan shows

Yango Play launches in the GCC with bilingual AI assistant, Ramadan shows
Roman Shimansky, MENA region business director at Yango Play, was photographed on the red carpet. (Supplied)
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Updated 04 March 2024

Yango Play launches in the GCC with bilingual AI assistant, Ramadan shows

Yango Play launches in the GCC with bilingual AI assistant, Ramadan shows

DUBAI: Tech platform Yango launched Yango Play, an artificial intelligence-powered entertainment super app, in the GCC market this week.

As Dubai’s Burj Al-Arab glittered in the background, the launch party saw guests hit the red carpet, including the stars of Yango Play’s exclusive Ramadan programming lineup. Those shows include Egyptian drama “The Assassins” (“Al Hashasheen”), as well as the Yango Play Original and the company’s first Saudi production, “Sakf El-Waled.”

Tunisian actress Dorra Zarrouk attended the event. (Supplied)

Roman Shimansky, MENA region business director at Yango Play, took to the stage and explained Yango Play’s mission to deliver different types of entertainment – from music to games to series – all on one platform. The AI-powered entertainment service combines video streaming, music, and mini-games in one place.

“What's so cool about it? First of all, our concept is very, very simple. Play everything you like, all in one place. Play music, play movies, play games, series all together. Second, is our unique artificial intelligence technologies. Yango Play is powered by AI, which allows us to bring next level features like an Arabic-speaking voice assistant, like a personalized stream of music that that adjusts to your tastes in real time, and so many more features,” he said.

Dancers perform on stage at the launch event. (Supplied)

He also introduced Yasmina, the bilingual AI assistant integrated into Yango Play. Yasmina can interact with users in Arabic and English and is able to understand major Arabic dialects, including Egyptian and Lebanese. Yasmina suggests songs and answers myriad questions — anything from today’s weather to this year’s Ramadan dates.  

Yango Play is available in the Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other GCC countries. The service provides subscribers with cross-platform access on smartphones and TVs.

Radwa Shaheen on the red carpet at the event. (Supplied)

In a released statement, Shimansky said: “At Yango Play, we're devoted to crafting a joyful entertainment experience, offering a selection of diverse content that turns every moment into a delightful adventure. Our ever-evolving platform uses AI to provide more seamless and intuitive experiences by understanding your preferences—whether by curating uplifting music for your drive, engaging shows for family time, or quick games for a brief pause in your day. We are deeply committed to enhancing these experiences through our original content and strategic collaborations with regional creatives, ensuring that each choice on our platform is a step towards discovering vibrant new emotions.”

Saudi star Fatima Al-Banawi discusses her directorial debut ‘Basma’ 

Saudi star Fatima Al-Banawi discusses her directorial debut ‘Basma’ 
Updated 14 June 2024

Saudi star Fatima Al-Banawi discusses her directorial debut ‘Basma’ 

Saudi star Fatima Al-Banawi discusses her directorial debut ‘Basma’ 
  • The Saudi actress and writer-director’s drama about a family’s struggle with mental health launched on Netflix this month  

DUBAI: “I really went into cinema — in 2015 with my first feature as an actress — with one intention: to bridge the gap between the arts and social impact and psychology,” Fatima Al-Banawi tells Arab News. “And I was able to come closer to this union when I positioned myself as a writer-director — more so than as an actor.” 

Al-Banawi is discussing her debut directorial feature, “Basma,” which launched on Netflix earlier this month. She not only directed the movie, but wrote it (and an original song for the soundtrack) and played the title role — a young Saudi woman who returns home to Jeddah after two years away studying in the States to find that her parents have divorced without telling her after struggling to deal with the mental illness of her father, the well-respected Dr. Adly (played by the excellent Yasir Al-Sasi). 

Basma is distraught to learn that her beloved father has moved out and — worse — that most of the family are, at best, reluctant to visit him. She is convinced that all he needs is the love and care of his loved ones. So she moves in with him, against the advice of her mother, Hind (Shaima), brother Waleed (Tared Sindi), and uncle, Hamza (Mohammed Essam). It doesn’t go smoothly.  

“My undergrad is in psychology. My father’s a psychologist. My sister’s a psychologist. I have psychology and sociology in my DNA,” Al-Banawi says. “We talk about Sigmund Freud over lunch, you know?”  

And so, when she sat down to write her first feature, it was natural that she would choose mental health as its focus. 

Al-Banawi and Yasir Al-Sasi in 'Basma.' (Supplied) 

“Dissonance was a word I found when I started working on ‘Basma.’ I wasn’t familiar with this term: to be in a complete state of, not just denial, but not responding in any way — action or awareness — to what (is obvious),” she says. “I felt it around me everywhere; things that were brushed under the carpet for years and years until they piled up and a person or a family could not handle them anymore; couldn’t fix the situation anymore. It becomes too big of an issue. Then the outcomes begin to unfold and, in turn, extend roots into society.  

“There were different personality disorders or mental illnesses that I was curious about investigating, like OCD, or depression — anti-depressants are very widespread in my community — and I felt like maybe these issues could be addressed in cinema.” 

In the end, though, she decided against making depression Dr. Adly’s illness.  

“I wanted to challenge myself with something that was difficult to translate visually,” she explains. “A paranoid or schizophrenic case is not like a case of depression. There’s a cinematic language for depression — you can put a person in a dark room, for example. But what Dr. Adly suffers from is these internal thoughts or assumptions. That’s very difficult to translate visually, but I wanted to (do it) because I felt that it was widespread — this was something that was really happening (around the world).” 

Al-Banawi was acutely aware that the portrayal of mental illness in cinema hasn’t always been successful.  

“It turns me off so much, when they make it seem like a person with an intellectual disability,” she says. “Someone can have a severe mental illness and seem incredibly normal — more normal than you or me; it really doesn’t manifest physically. It’s an internal process. This is why mental illness is such a difficult topic, because you’re, like, ‘What is normal? What is not normal?’ Yasir really had to understand that dichotomy between Dr. Adly’s internal scenario versus how he behaves externally. I told him, ‘Just think of yourself as a difficult father. Like, something triggers you and all of a sudden you snap, but otherwise, you’re actually very cool. You’re decent, you’re pleasant, you’re sweet and you’re charismatic.’” 

Al-Banawi and cast members on the set of 'Basma.' (Supplied)

It was vital, clearly, to get the casting just right, and not just for Dr. Adly. As Al-Badawi explains: “Mental illness is a family matter. It’s not just on the patient themselves, it’s on their community and how they accept and deal with it.” 

The obvious on-screen chemistry between the actors — even though for many of them it was their first experience of acting in front of a camera — shows how well the casting process worked. 

“The most important element was to create a believable, cohesive family. That was one of the main issues,” Al-Banawi says. “The second thing was that — although I recognize that a lot of amazing actors and actresses have (emerged in Saudi Arabia) in the past couple of years — as a director, I wanted to see fresh faces. It’s beautiful to see these talents who weren’t given a chance before, or didn’t even see themselves taking this path. Honestly, this whole cast was a blessing.” 

To ensure that family “cohesiveness,” Al-Banawi scheduled three weeks of rehearsals before shooting.  

“I wasn’t going to roll a camera before that. I wanted to get closer to the actors as an actress — not only as a director,” she says. “I wanted to play with them and do improv with them and really come into character with them as Basma, not as Fatima. I couldn’t have done that without some playtime — that’s what I called it; we wanted to play before the real deal. That was really important for me. It was fun to watch this energy growing.” 

The “playtime” experience included getting the crew to perform some of the roles at a readthrough too. “I’m a nerd,” she says with a laugh. “OK, we were paying them, but I really wanted them to be immersed in the story we’re telling, and to choose to tell it. And I wanted them to have one hell of a good time.” 

Al-Banawi (left) on the set of 'Basma.' (Supplied)

The whole process — particularly getting people together to record the song that she wrote for the end of the movie — was something of a throwback, as Al-Banawi tells it.  

“Pre-industrialization of cinema in Saudi Arabia, this was how things worked,” she says. “We weren’t concerned with the financials or anything; we were just concerned with whether we’d want to be part of something. And that’s how beauty unfolded. Of course, now, with all the support and recognition, it’s like the passion multiplied by ten.” 

And “Basma” really was a passion project for Al-Banawi.  

“The mental-health aspect is something I’m driven by, of course, but I also feel that it’s important for films to be personal and relatable and reflective of social set-ups,” she says. “As much as I admire — and am a fan of — action and thrillers and comedies, I like to have some family drama amidst those too. Something close to reality. That’s why I want to make films: to invite children who are like myself once upon a time to watch films like the ones that I grew up watching — films that had a subtext or meaning, but that I really engaged with. I learned so many principles from them.” 

Indie band Juniper’s Club find their rhythm in Saudi Arabia

Indie band Juniper’s Club find their rhythm in Saudi Arabia
Updated 13 June 2024

Indie band Juniper’s Club find their rhythm in Saudi Arabia

Indie band Juniper’s Club find their rhythm in Saudi Arabia
  • The Bahrain-based indie outfit have built a fanbase in the Kingdom over the past two years and make their Riyadh debut later this month

ALKHOBAR: “It’s just across the border, but it’s a whole different world, right?” Debbi Francisco, the Filipino frontwoman of Bahrain-based band Juniper’s Club, told Arab News ahead of her group’s show at Alkhobar’s Bohemia Cafe & Records in early June.  

“The Saudi energy is different. While playing, I have the habit of always looking down. And then I look up and I’m like, ‘Wow, they’re actually staring at me.’ The Saudi fans really focus on you,” Francisco’s Indian bandmate, guitarist Sean Fernandes, added with a smile. 

Since the pair formed Juniper’s Club two years ago, they have performed many live shows in Saudi, all in Alkhobar. They love their mini tradition of driving across the King Fahd Causeway to perform. For their gigs, they are joined by John Goodwin on drums and Ryan James on bass.  

Francisco and Fernandes, both in their 20s, met in 2019, when they were both music instructors. “We realized we had a lot of things in common, musically,” Francisco said. “And we actually started a bunch of projects together, but, eventually, we were, like, ‘Yo. Why don’t we just do something with just the two of us?’” 


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Their music seamlessly transitions from cutesy indie-pop to full-on rage-rock — but remains danceable, relatable, and sonically cohesive. Fernandes cites Coldplay as a major influence on his guitar playing and mentions Blink 182 and The Beatles as early favorites.  

“I actually started playing music very late. I didn’t play anything until I was 18,” he said. “My brother left his guitars behind when he went to college to pursue sound engineering. I had no siblings around, so I had a lot of free time. I picked up the guitar, and here I am.” 

Francisco, meanwhile, was brought up on gospel music. “That was my main reason for going to church as a kid, I would just watch musicians play,” she said. “I learned by watching people play live. I was also big on the Jonas Brothers — then I grew out of that and into Paramore. I started playing drums because of Paramore. I wanted to learn all their songs.” 

Growing up in Bahrain, neither of them ever ventured into Saudi Arabia. 

“Saudi was like a neighbor you’ve been wanting to say hi to for a long time, but you were a bit shy and they were a bit shy. And then one day they invite you to dinner,” Francisco said. “Now, we’re breaking bread and rocking out! Honestly, it’s such an honor to play in Saudi. Less than 10 years ago that wasn’t in the picture at all. It was almost impossible.” 

They’re now building a solid following in the Kingdom with their mix of indie-pop and alternative rock, featuring haunting, sometimes angsty, lyrics with melodic hooks. Live, their music is considerably heavier than on recordings.  

“We always try to make our shows as energetic and fun as possible,” Francisco said. “We want the crowd to have as much fun as we are. At its core, Juniper’s Club is just me and Sean, but it’s evolved into something else live; it becomes a Juniper’s Club club.” 

On June 28, Juniper’s Club will make their Riyadh debut at The Warehouse in the JAX District. 

“We also have an EP coming out, hopefully by the end of June,” Francisco said. “We’re going to introduce some of those new songs live. We’ve really revamped our setlist, so it might get a bit crazier than usual. It’s going to get loud.” 

Actress Laila Abdallah sparks global headlines after beach day with Joe Jonas

Actress Laila Abdallah sparks global headlines after beach day with Joe Jonas
Updated 12 June 2024

Actress Laila Abdallah sparks global headlines after beach day with Joe Jonas

Actress Laila Abdallah sparks global headlines after beach day with Joe Jonas

DUBAI: US singer Joe Jonas was spotted enjoying a beach day in Greece with Lebanese actress Laila Abdallah as they attended the opening of the One&Only Aesthesis in Athens along with other celebrities.

The paparazzi shots sparked an international internet manhunt for Abdallah, who was previously identified by magazines around the world as a “mystery brunette,” according to the Daily Mail.

The pair did not attend the opening event together, and mingled among other high-profile guests, including former Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach, actor Welsh actor Luke Evans, French designer Olivier Rousteing and Australian pop icon Kylie Minogue, among others.

But paparazzi at the resort were solely focused on Jonas and Abdallah, who enjoyed a beach day on Monday.

Jonas, who filed for divorce from British actress Sophie Turner in September, was photographed swimming in the sea and lounging on the shore along with Abdallah and others.

Although the snaps sparked international headlines and speculation amongst fans, neither camp has commented on the photographs and according to multiple reports they are just friends.

The 28-year-old actress was born in Kuwait to Lebanese parents on Jan. 8, 1996, and began acting in the early 2010s, landing roles in Arab TV series.

Laila Abdallah attended the opening of the One&Only Aesthesis in Athens. (Getty Images)

Abdallah can speak in sign language as she was raised by parents who are deaf and mute. The actress is the oldest of four siblings and previously spoke to Emirati podcast host Anas Bukhash about that responsibility.

“Because I’m the oldest among my siblings, and always I’m the one who does everything… I mean, I call myself the man of the house, the father, the big sister, I’m everything, so it’s impossible for anyone to see me cry, impossible,” she said.

Abdallah previously starred in a music video for Saudi singer Abdul Majeed Abdullah but her first acting role was in the TV show “Saher Al-lail” in 2010,  which was directed by Muhammad Daham Al-Shammari. The director also cast her in a recurring role in his series “Tu Nahar.” Abdallah most recently starred in the TV series “London Class” in 2023.

She boasts five million followers on Instagram and is known for sharing behind-the-scenes shots from her international travels, as well as her red carpet moments — notably, she recently hit the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

In December 2017, she married Iranian actor Abdallah Abass, but they divorced in 2018.

‘Ultraman: Rising’ sees iconic Japanese hero take on an ‘emotional, entertaining’ new challenge

‘Ultraman: Rising’ sees iconic Japanese hero take on an ‘emotional, entertaining’ new challenge
Updated 12 June 2024

‘Ultraman: Rising’ sees iconic Japanese hero take on an ‘emotional, entertaining’ new challenge

‘Ultraman: Rising’ sees iconic Japanese hero take on an ‘emotional, entertaining’ new challenge
  • ‘He is massive in a way that we don't understand (in the US) – for people in Japan, and all over Asia, he’s bigger than Superman or Spider-Man,’ the director said
  • In this film, the titanic superhero meets his match when he adopts a 35-foot-tall, fire-breathing baby kaiju

DUBAI: Set to release on Netflix on June 14, 3DCG-animated feature film “Ultraman: Rising” sees Tokyo threatened by rising monster attacks when baseball star Ken Sato returns home to take on the mantle of Ultraman.

Ultraman is already an international pop-culture phenomenon and has been a fan favorite since the Japanese television series “Ultra Q” in 1966, with countless reboots and sequels across different mediums released over the years.

In statements shared exclusively with Arab News in the Middle East, Emmy-winning artist and filmmaker Shannon Tindle shares how his childhood influenced the decision to create “Ultraman: Rising.”

“When I was a kid, I loved sitting on the floor with my parents, watching kung fu movies, Godzilla, and, most of all, Ultraman. The image of a towering, monster-fighting superhero was forever burned into my brain (and heart) and would eventually inspire this film,” he said.

In this film, the titanic superhero meets his match when he adopts a 35-foot-tall, fire-breathing baby kaiju whom he protects from nefarious outside forces.

“Although family has always been a part of the Ultraman legacy, we’re leaning into parenthood in a way that hasn’t been explored before. What does it feel like to have this incredible power and still be overwhelmed by a child? There’s something deeply emotional and incredibly entertaining about that shared experience,” Tindle explained.

As for the responsibility of creating the next step in a revered Japanese franchise, the Kentucky-born director and writer says it is not something he took lightly.

“I learned that he is massive in a way that we don't understand (in the US) – for people in Japan, and all over Asia, he’s bigger than Superman or Spider-Man,” Tindle explained, adding: “Our goal was for Japanese folks to see themselves in the film, from how people engage with one another to what their houses and signage look like … we worked with our cultural consultant, Mayumi Yoshida, who is a talented filmmaker in her own right, and we also had our own internal team that included both Japanese and Japanese-American folks who would have weekly meetings to review all of our materials,” he said.

VFX supervisor Hayden Jones and animation supervisor Mathieu Vig took aesthetic inspiration from manga and anime for the film, that The Wrap critic Rafael Motamayor described as featuring “dazzling and memorable stances and shots.”

Pixar’s ‘Inside Out 2’ filmmaker Kelsey Mann talks ‘exciting, daunting’ sequel

Pixar’s ‘Inside Out 2’ filmmaker Kelsey Mann talks ‘exciting, daunting’ sequel
Updated 11 June 2024

Pixar’s ‘Inside Out 2’ filmmaker Kelsey Mann talks ‘exciting, daunting’ sequel

Pixar’s ‘Inside Out 2’ filmmaker Kelsey Mann talks ‘exciting, daunting’ sequel

DUBAI: Nine years after Pixar’s animated feature “Inside Out” gave the world a new way to talk about feelings and emotions, the sequel is set to release with a bang.

“Inside Out 2” returns to cinemas on June 13 with filmmaker Kelsey Mann introducing new emotions as the film’s protagonist Riley takes on her teen years.

The film opens with Riley hitting adolescence just as the headquarters inside her mind undergoes a sudden demolition to make room for something entirely unexpected — new emotions. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, who have long been running a successful operation, aren’t sure how to feel when Anxiety shows up. And she’s not alone, she’s brought Envy, Ennui and Embarrassment with her.

“I’d zeroed in on the idea of Anxiety being a major character,” Mann told Arab News. “It’s something that really starts to appear as we become teenagers — we can all relate. I remember doing a lot of research early on about what happens in our brains at this age that triggered this idea of a wrecking ball coming through Headquarters — a bunch of workers piling in and tearing everything down. It’s a renovation — that’s kind of what it feels like to be a teenager. It’s chaotic.”

Like its predecessor, “Inside Out 2” features two settings: The real world, where Riley interacts with her family, friends and hockey players; and the mind world, where Riley’s Emotions help her navigate the new challenges she’s facing as a teenager.

The concept of memories was a core idea that was dealt with in the original film, while the sequel introduces the idea of a belief system.

“In the first film, they took a concept like memories and gave it a visual and now it's become vocabulary out in the world. And we got excited about, like, ‘Yes, I want memories in the movie.’ But for me, in doing a sequel, I want to make sure that we're doing new things and introducing new concepts and going to new places,” said Mann.

“We're looking at Riley and what age she is and what she's going through and she's a teenager. And what's happening at that time is that you're starting to develop who you are as an individual, which means you're starting to create your own beliefs. And we're like, ‘Oh, beliefs, that'd be so cool to see what beliefs look like.’ And then I got really excited about the belief system. It's exciting. It's also daunting, because it could look like anything. And so, there's a lot of exploration you can do but I'm really happy with what we ended up with,” he added.

The sequel features Amy Poehler (Joy), Phyllis Smith (Sadness) and Lewis Black (Anger) in their original roles. Ayo Edebiri (Envy), Maya Hawke (Anxiety) and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Ennui) join the cast while “Veep “star Tony Hale takes over as Fear from Bill Hader and Liza Lapira voices Disgust.