Saudi director Tawfik Alzaidi: ‘A filmmaker needs to understand the human soul’
DUBAI: What happens to a dream deferred? That is the central question of “Norah,” Saudi filmmaker Tawfik Alzaidi’s masterful directorial debut, and the first Saudi film to be shot entirely in the Kingdom’s historic AlUla region. The movie is set in 1996, decades before Saudi Arabia opened itself up to the world and began to directly support its now-thriving artistic community, and follows a teacher named Nader, whose ambitions of becoming an artist himself are drying up like a raisin in the sun.
While Nader, played by Saudi actor Yaqoub Alfarhan (“Rashash,” “Scales”) knows that he may never achieve his dreams, and has taken an ill-fated job as a teacher in a rural town that will never accept him, he refuses to give up on the dreams of others. He takes a young girl named Norah (Maria Bahrawi) under his wing, helping her discover that there is more to life than the limited choices that have been placed in front of her, and that her own artistic expression, not to mention her own voice as a powerful woman, may someday be embraced by her country even if his may never be.
Alzaidi’s own story is much like Nader’s, albeit with a happy ending. He, too, grew up in a time when the idea of becoming a professional artist felt like a fantasy. He, too, refused to give up on his passion despite the lack of opportunity. But at the 2023 edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival, his dream will finally be achieved. After 20 years of waiting, he will premiere his first feature-length film at the country’s biggest celebration of the artform, thanks in part to the support of the Kingdom he loves so much.
“To me, this is the only way I ever wanted this to happen. We talked about debuting the film at places like Venice or Toronto, but I refused. This is a film about the power of our artists, and so we had to embrace the power of our audience. We will show the world that we are a true force of nature. Audiences here waited so long to have great cinematic creations of our own, and our time is finally here,” Alzaidi tells Arab News.
“When I’ve showed this to people in private screenings, they always say to me that this movie contains one thing above all else: the truth. I am so happy that our truth can now be told. Filmmaking brings together all the tools of artistic expression together, so I believe there is no better way to tell our stories,” he continues.
Alzaidi’s own passion for storytelling was born the day that he saw George Miller’s 1980s classic “Mad Max II” when he was nine years old. He was never formally educated in filmmaking, nor did he feel he had to be, as all it really took was the dedicated study of masters like Stanley Kubrick, alongside a healthy number of cheesy B movies (the latter so he could “learn what not to do”). But first and foremost, great cinema is not born out of technical skill, it is about an understanding of narrative.
“When I first watched ‘Mad Max,’ at that age, I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, but I experienced a whole range of feelings. I realized the significance of cinema in incorporating reality into our own creativity. I saw films as parallel universes that draw on reality as it passes through the artist. Then, as a teenager, I wanted to be a filmmaker,” AlZaidi explains.
“A person who makes films needs to understand the human soul, and the power of story. Sure, they need to be educated, knowledgeable, and curious, but it’s also about their qualities as a person — their optimism and their pessimism, and their yearning to discover, and that is found everywhere in their lives. For me I gain just as much from watching a great film as I do reading a book by Murakami,” he continues.
Alzaidi started the script for “Norah” in 2015, guided over the last eight years first and foremost by a desire to make a truly cinematic film, as everything else that he saw releasing was either an extension of the country’s YouTube culture, or its television.
“All these other films are not on the cinematic level,” he says. Even from that first draft, he was writing with his male star in mind, though he had no idea how he would find the right Norah — a character named after, though not directly inspired by, his own mother.
“I had been friends with Yaqoub for years, and we’d always discussed doing something big and cinematic together, so there was never anyone else who was going to play Nader. Norah, however, was more difficult. I had an image of her in my mind, but I didn’t know if she existed. It was so difficult to find,” says Alzaidi.
He interviewed actress after actress on Zoom, but no one matched the character’s spirit, or understood what drove her.
“I gave each of them a questionnaire, and asked them to answer as Norah. No one could capture her, until we found 16-year-old Maria Bahrawi two weeks before shooting began in AlUla — a place I chose because it is a work of art by itself. She understood what it was like to want something more, and to not be sure if she would get it. When we auditioned, she had basically zero confidence, because she’d just been rejected for another role on the basis that she ‘couldn’t act.’ But I saw Norah’s spirit in her,” says Alzaidi.
“Two weeks before we began filming, I cast her. Maria cried after we hung up, not because she got the part, but because she thought she hadn’t. Her mother told me the story later—it was because I hadn’t said one thing about the film, I had only asked her about her life. She literally couldn’t believe she had gotten it. But it was perhaps the best decision I made for this entire film. Maria is Norah,” he continues.
As many dreams as Alzaidi has for himself, with a new world opened up to him now as people rave about the film behind the scenes in the industry, he is most excited about young artists like Bahrawi. As he anxiously awaits the film’s first screening at RSIFF, he is thinking most about her and those like her, and the new world that is opening up to them.
“I don’t think this is a film that’s trying to have one message — art is subjective, after all,” he says. “But when audiences of the next generation see this film, I want them to remember one thing: Believe in yourself. And if you have a voice, never stop fighting for it.”