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Saudi director’s labour of love takes the kingdom to Cannes

Tawfik Alzaidi TwentyOne Entertainment
Saudi Arabian director Tawfik Alzaidi on the set of his film Norah
  • First time a Saudi film will compete
  • Won at Red Sea Film Festival
  • Director Tawfik Alzaidi is self-taught

For the first time a Saudi film has been selected to compete in the Cannes film festival, catapulting its little-known self-taught director into the limelight.

Tawfik Alzaidi was so surprised that he’d managed to break through to the big time that he kept the news that his film Norah had been accepted for the ‘Un Certain Regard’ competition to himself for some time. 

“People tell me ‘you’ve broken the barrier’. There had been many attempts in previous years but they didn’t make it so I’ve given people hope,” Alzaidi says in a late-night Riyadh cafe as he prepares to visit the French Riviera town during the festival’s May 14-25 run. 

The unassuming forty-something from Medina had previously worked in television production, then began working on short films, learning the trade on his terms before quietly beginning to conceive his first long-form work. 

The social and economic reforms introduced from 2016 created a new atmosphere that suddenly made things seem more possible for an independent filmmaker. 

Alzaidi set to work planning the film in meticulous detail, and then secured funding from various Saudi entities to cover filming, post-production and distribution. 

But the film, a teenage girl’s coming-of-age story in a Bedouin community, began to attract attention from bigger players – attention vindicated when it won in the the best Saudi film category during last year’s Red Sea Film Festival. 

“When I was looking for funding, MBC Studios came to me,” Alzaidi says, referring to the Saudi-owned MBC network, a leading producer of Arabic news and entertainment. 

“They demanded a lot of changes to the script. They wanted to bring another director in, someone to supervise me. I said no because I had faith in what I was doing,” he says, adding that they even wanted to change the ending.

“They wanted to control the film and if I’d given them that chance I don’t think it would be in Cannes.” 

Saudi Arabian director Tawfik Alzaidi on the set of his film NorahTwentyOne Entertainment
Tawfik Alzaidi during the filming of Norah

The finished product, redolent of Saudi director Haifa Mansour’s Wadjda which was nominated for Britain’s Bafta awards, is clearly a labour of love in the best film d’auteur tradition. 

Each frame seems to have been arranged as a portrait painting through the use of light, colour and a sense of space. Modernities are removed to recreate the 1990s. There are also personal touches from Alzaidi’s life, such as cars or films he has liked. 

The lead actress Maria Bahrawi, who had never acted before, was chosen two weeks beforehand based on Alzaidi’s sense of who she is from chatting about other things. And he managed to win the participation of Abdullah Sadhan, a well-known comedy actor who had never done films before. 

“People who’ve seen it always say the same thing to me: that it’s a realistic film,” Alzaidi says, proud of the description. “I saw the films coming up in Saudi Arabia – they’re closer to TV movies or YouTube sketches. But I wanted to do cinema.”

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