An audience of more than 200 people watched his short comedy, “Dunya’s Day,” on the IMAX screen at the Vox Cinema at Riyadh Park during an invitation-only event organized by the General Culture Authority, represented by the Saudi Film Council.
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In addition to a Saudi director, the film has an all-Saudi, all-female cast, was shot on location in the Kingdom and will shortly become the first Saudi film shown at the renowned Sundance Film Festival.
Alsemari, a post-graduate student of film at New York University, welcomed the audience before the screening, making sure to let them know that they were “allowed to laugh” — and laugh they did. The film entertained a delighted crowd who rewarded the director with a hearty round of applause as as the credits rolled.
After the screening, Alsemari thanked his family, friends and the cast and crew. He revealed that most of those involved in the production were volunteers working an a film for the first time.
“We were like a family on set,” he added.
The main cast includes Sarah Balghonaim as Dunya, and Sarah Altaweel and Rahaf as Dalal and Deema, her best friends. Balghonaim joined the project to help with casting, but when Alsemari was unable to find an actor he liked for the title character, he asked Balghonaim to take the role.
By making a film with an all-female cast, Alsemari and the actors were keen to highlight the fact that Saudi women have stories that deserve to be told, and that films need not be driven by male characters. Inspired by classic Hollywood movies such as “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” Alsemari wanted to put his own, Saudi twist on those stories.
“I wanted to tell a story about an Arab woman who was neither a victim nor a saint,” he said. “She’s in a position of power in the narrative. That was important for us.”
To prepare for the film, the actors immersed themselves in their roles.
“We even referred to each other by our character names during the shoot,” said Altaweel. “We were completely into it.”
All three stars were generous in their praise of Alsemari, particularly his skill as a director.
“It’s such a blessing working with a director who knows exactly what he wants, and knows the characters perfectly, especially for a first-time film actress,” said Rahaf. “He understood us, he understood our needs and he was always careful to involve us in every step of the process.”
Faisal Baltyuor, the CEO of the Saudi Film Council, highlighted the organization’s desire to support local projects such as “Dunya’s Day,” and encouraged would-be Saudi filmmakers to take the first step toward realizing their visions.
“We have so many stories to tell, from every small town to every coast in the country,” he said. “Do not hesitate. Start on your next film and let us help you.”
While they were enjoying the premiere of their film, the cast and crew also still seemed to be in shock after the recent announcement that it will be screened at Sundance Festival, which begins on January 24 in Utah.
“It still hasn’t sunk in fully yet,” said Alsemari, “but it feels incredible. I’m so excited to make it out there.”
“I’m so proud of the entire team,” said Balghonaim. “I’m especially proud that the first Saudi Sundance film features an all-female cast.”
“It has to be said, however, that the experience itself was rewarding enough; the Sundance thing is just a bonus,” said Rahaf. “I know everyone says stuff like that but that’s what I honestly feel.”
In the midst of all the excitement, Alsemari is already thinking about what to do next and hopes that next time he’s back to screen a film in Saudi Arabia, it will be a full-length feature.
“I’m working on graduating now, but who knows?” he added.
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