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Arab Cinema Steps into Genre to Tell Authentic and Diverse Stories

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The third edition of the Red Sea Film Festival, wrapping Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, felt like a direct response to a burning question from executives and investors present at the festival’s market arm last year: Could Saudi Arabia step out from drama and comedy and head into genre filmmaking? The answer offered by the festival, it turns out, was a resounding yes.

“Arabs are closer to fantasy than the Western world,” director Yasir Al-Yasiri told Variety of this year’s Red Sea Film Festival opening film, “HWJN.” The film, a sprawling fantasy about the Arab Jinn culture set and shot in Jeddah, comes at the “right time,” according to the director. “We have the means to do so, and so many talented people have gathered great experience from working abroad with big companies and now they are working in our region.”

“Saudi changed so much that suddenly we had room to explore,” said Lina Mahmoud, one of this year’s participants of the Red Sea Lodge, the Red Sea Film Foundation’s 10-month residency program. Mahmoud is a filmmaker born and bred in Jeddah and currently working on her feature debut “The Night Whisperer.” The project is described as an “elevated thriller,” about a lost traveler with no memories, who arrives at an isolated desert village where people are cursed with mysterious insomnia.

“I am fully aware this type of idea is not everybody’s cup of tea, so I think I am lucky that Saudi has changed and things are opening up just as I begin my filmmaking journey. Now, people are pushing for these films to be made,” concluded Mahmoud, who said she spent her childhood watching fantasy films like the “Star Wars” franchise with friends and family. “Even my mother who was a bit conservative used to be crazy about film.”

The Red Sea Film Foundation is fueling a new crop of genre films not only in Saudi but in the Arab-speaking world through the Red Sea Fund, created to support talent from the Arab and African regions. Director Mohamed Kassaby and producer Mohamed Kateb were also in the Lodge this year with “An Endless Night,” an Egyptian neo-noir set in the bustling city of Cairo and following a 40-year-old journalist as he searches for the truth behind the myth of an immortal healer.

“This genre allows us to explore the contrasts of the capital, hope and despair, beauty and danger, light and darkness. We are interested in that genre as an audience,” explained Kateb of their decision to make the film as a neo-noir.

Reflecting on the experience of working on a genre film project and presenting it to potential investors at the Lodge, Kateb said he can notice a “growing recognition of genre-based storytelling’s potential and its international appeal,” highlighting how the creative duo has held several discussions with key players in the region and internationally who are willing to work on genre film coming from the Arab world.

“It is crucial as well to prioritize the production quality of genre projects, which will eventually create compelling narratives that compete with international genre films. As filmmakers, our hopes are very high in that area,” concluded Kateb.

Such a notion is very much on the mind of the creative team behind Telfaz11, the highly successful creative media studio responsible for several hit TV shows and films in Saudi Arabia, including the highest-grossing Saudi film of all time, “Sattar.”

Speaking during one of the industry panels at the festival, the CEO and chairman of Telfaz11 Alaa Fadan said working with genre is about “public interest.” Fadan went on to cite “Naga” and “Mandoob” — two Telfaz11 films that played at this year’s festival — as examples of the direction the company is taking. “It’s a new genre our audience hasn’t seen but we felt like it was time for something different.”

The two films tell tales of desperate protagonists in the Saudi capital of Riyadh through classic horror and suspense tropes: “Naga” sees a young girl face the many dangers of the desert as she tries to make it home before curfew, while “Mandoob” follows an overworked delivery app driver trying to branch out into bootlegging.

Both played to great success at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, with “Naga” selling out screenings and just landing on Netflix internationally.

MBC Studios, another key player in the region, is also currently investing in genre. Their pick, however, is not horror, but fantasy. The studio is currently finishing production on “Rise of the Witches,” a 10-part fantasy-adventure series based on the best-selling books by Saudi author Osamah Al Muslim and set to be the country’s biggest-ever TV series.

“The common denominator is that we are trying to focus on young adults and [fantasy] works with them,” said Zeinab Abu Alsamh, general manager at MBC Studios and CEO and MBC Academy.

Alsamh also highlighted the importance of creating genre films and series that feel “authentic” to Saudi Arabia.

Authenticity is a keyword whenever talking about creating content for Saudi and Arab-speaking audiences, with players in the region reluctant to simply regurgitate internationally successful formats without fully understanding how it will play locally. The question also plays into the need for diverse and original stories coming from regions where cinema is still in its infancy.

“As a French woman of Algerian origin, it was very important for me to make a western starring a young girl of North African origin, because the depiction of women from the region is still few and far between,” said Emma Benestan, the writer and director behind “Animale.” Part of this year’s Work in Progress selection at the Red Sea Souk, “Animale” is a revenge horror and western mix set in the world of bull racing in Camargue.

“Camargue is a land which has its myths and mysteries. The local traditions include bulls and horses, the landscape is unique. There is also something both magical and very violent about those traditions,” added Benestan.

The sentiment is shared by Nayla Al Khaja, whose feature debut “Three” had its world premiere at the Red Sea Film Festival. “If I tried to make a horror that has been done many times before, even if it’s beautiful, it would feel just like any other horror film,” she said of her psychological horror about a boy who is believed to be possessed.

Al Khaja blends Arab and Western notions in “Three,” a mix also at the root of the filmmaker’s home country, the United Arab Emirates. “91% of people in the Emirates are expats and only 9% of people are locals. As a local, we always feel like we are not the dominant voice in the country, so we stick to ourselves.” With “Three,” the director tried to bring local myths and traditions to the fore, employing a Western character as a means to dissect the cultural clash that currently permeates the UAE.

“I was mobbed after the screening,” said Al Khaja. “So many women came to tell me they had never seen themselves on screen like this. I didn’t expect that reaction but it’s a topic that is very close to home, this idea of black magic in the Arab world, plus, horror is one of the few genres that can send a message about societal issues that many might not have discussed before.”

Benestan highlights the same quality of horror, a quality, she believes, will help aid much-needed diversity in the industry: “I am convinced we need more diversity in movies and series, and that there will be more and more talented filmmakers to tackle those issues in inventive and original ways. Genre is a very interesting way to investigate gender and social issues.”

Kassaby and Kateb are also hopeful for the future of genre in the Arab-speaking world. “We can predict that the genre films will persist and find a bigger space in the landscape of international cinema. Not only in Arab-speaking countries but around the world, the audience is transforming and looking for thought-provoking visually intriguing cinema.”

“The interesting part about genre is that it blends stories from its origin with cinematic elements beyond the origin,” Kateb added. “The audience can discover stories beyond their local territories. This is the power of cinema we believe in.”

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