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Saudi Arabia: Film AlUla Spotlight

Saudi Arabia: Film AlUla Spotlight

When asked to name her organization’s biggest accomplishment so far, Charlene Deleon-Jones, the executive director for Film AlUla and Saudi Tourism leadership board member, doesn’t hesitate to name-check Norah, the first Saudi film to crack the Cannes lineup. The Tawfik Alzaidi-helmed indie movie, which will compete in the fest’s Un Certain Regard section, was shot in AlUla, the country’s 200,000-year-old “living museum” and first UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a crew that was 40 percent Saudi and includes an all-Saudi cast. The latter includes teenager Maria Bahrawi in her debut role as the titular Norah, an orphaned girl who develops a nurturing bond with Nader, an artist and new teacher in her village, played by Saudi actor Yagoub Alfarhan. “That they were able to get to this stage is really impressive,” Deleon-Jones says. “Often, people can be very focused on what is seen as their ‘international piece,’ but what I love is how beautiful Norah is, and the depth of the story.” 

What she will hold up as AlUla’s latest highlight in six months’ time is anyone’s guess, given the volume of projects already on or soon to be added to the flourishing film agency’s slate.

In an interview with THR, she shared latest developments and her take on the state of filmmaking in Saudi Arabia

Why do you think Norah in particular was the first Saudi film to be selected for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard?

What is special about Norah is the team around it. What was really clear when speaking to and working with Tawfik [Alzaidi] was how it was a labor of love. Something we have been seeing increasingly during and post-COVID, [are] human stories that universally appeal to lots of people. When you have a story about a journey, about a human connection, and about expression, those are things that resonate across the board and leave you feeling thoughtful and uplifted on a human level, rather than just [thinking,] “OK, that film represents that particular country or that particular group of people.” What is also gorgeous about the film [is] the onscreen young talent stepping into roles that are characterful and doing that in a way which is very believable.

Saudi ‘Norah’ writer-director Tawfik Alzaidi

Courtesy of TwentyOne Entertainment

Are you pleased by how this follows and contrasts last year’s big-budget action movie Kandahar, the first Hollywood production shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, mostly in AlUla?

Yes, [these are] the first two films to have lots of visibility. Obviously, there are lots of other films coming out of Saudi, as well. But I think it’s important to have a range of stories and mediums. It’s something that we actively encourage. What we’ve been approached about from a location perspective is really diverse, and that has expanded now that we have studios. Quite often now, there’s a request for studio films that actually aren’t set in a landscape like AlUla, or Saudi or even the Middle East.

What’s been happening at the studios since they opened last August?

Stampede [Ventures, headed by Greg Silverman, former president of creative development and physical production at Warner Bros.] has taken initial occupation. They’ve taken both studios and are in prep stages for their first couple of films [of a 10-production deal], which are large-scale, probably on par with Kandahar. We’re in the next phase of building out further facilities there now as well, across 2025 and 2026. So, studios are in full prep mode, ready for filming to begin in the summer. Even that is quite monumental, to think, “OK, right, we’re going to start filming large-scale feature films in the height of summer in Saudi!” That’s only possible because of the way the studios have been designed to cocoon who’s filming there, regardless of what the elements are outside.

That’s especially impressive, considering they’ve been created using green initiatives.

Part of the reason [Saudi’s] Royal Commission was so interested in the film industry is that, done correctly, it can be one of the greenest industries. We still have a lot of work to do at a local level; there’s a lot more to be moved to sustainable energy sources. But we’re very plugged into what’s happening with the Royal Commission of AlUla generally, where you have huge teams of sustainability experts from around the world, looking at how you make things practical and affordable from a sustainability perspective. 

It was recently announced that artistic and creative director and longtime Lady Gaga stylist Nicola Formichetti is to become a costume mentor with the AlUla Creates platform. What do such mentorships involve, exactly?

Usually, mentors have involvement in the selection, as well as the development of the mentees. But that mentorship is often not a one-way street: Last year, our high-profile mentors [including models Helena Christensen and Eva Herzigová] maintained relationships with the mentees after their initial period. We want to build relationships beyond the structure of the program.

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Any other new AlUla initiatives?

On our film studios site, we have the development of an extensive music studio, large enough to fit an orchestra, purposely designed so that it’s suitable for recording a range of different types of music. Sometimes the recording needs of today’s specific genres of music in the Middle East are significantly different to what you might need for other genres. We’re also currently investigating building music studios in our luxury lifestyle hotels, so as an artist you could have a unique wellness experience somewhere that is absolutely phenomenal to record your next album. And, over the next year, we have really enforced groundbreaking training for local people to pick up credits across a number of films, so they can become, in time, really useful resources, and can go straight into long-term employment. So we’re opening up entirely new career paths.

Is Red Sea Film involved in that? 

Absolutely. Last night, for example, I had dinner with Red Sea Labs, supporting up-and-coming filmmakers — it’s a collaboration we have with the Red Sea Film Foundation. We had filmmakers from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and mentors from around the world. That represents what the Saudi film industry is platforming: a whole range of stories and helping with the resourcing to make that happen.

Any specific 2024 film projects you can share?

We’re currently in some mature conversations around a large-scale, Chinese-Saudi film. The leading cast is from the U.S., China and Bollywood, with an up-and-coming Saudi actress. That’s in late-stage discussions, but, as always, with so many different countries involved, it takes a while to pull it all together.

Finally, how did the January 2024 arrest of Amr Al-Madani, the CEO of Saudi Arabia’s Royal Commission for AlUla, in connection to allegations of corruption affect Film AlUla? [In January, Al-Madani was arrested for his involvement in “crimes of abuse of authority and money laundering.”]

The Royal Commission is a really important and large endeavor. A lot of its projects continue, as you would expect. Anywhere where you have a project of this scale, it’s not necessarily dependent on one team or one individual: We have been moving full steam ahead.

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