Arab Stars of Tomorrow: Saudi director Raed Alsemari at CIFF’s panel discussion

Ati Metwaly , Monday 25 Nov 2019

Alsemari is among the five Arab Stars of Tomorrow chosen by Screen International at the 41st Cairo Int’l Film Festival

Raed Alsemari
Saudi director Raed Alsemari

On the fourth day (24 November) of the ongoing Cairo International Film Festival (20-29 November), Screen International has announced five Arab Stars of Tomorrow, a selection of the most talented and promising actors and directors from across the Middle East and North Africa.

The names include Egyptian filmmaker and writer Kawthar Younis, Moroccan actress Nisrin Erradi, Tunisian actor Farès Landoulsi, Palestinian filmmaker Wisam Al-Jafari and filmmaker Raed Alsemari from Saudi Arabia.

On the same day, a special panel discussion was held at Hanager Theatre, hosted by Screen International curator and Middle East correspondent Melanie Goodfellow and featuring four of five stars.

The panel missed Al Jafari who was unable to travel to Cairo.

Among the stars was Saudi filmmaker Raed Alsemari, who lives between Riyadh and New York.

In the press release, Screen International presents Alsemari as “the hugely creative filmmaker,” beginning his biography with his career in the industry working as a casting associate in 2014 on Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, which was shot in Jordan.

During the discussion held at Hanager Theatre on Sunday 24 November, Alsemari spoke more about his journey through film. “As a young man, I mostly watched European and American cinema. It was later on that I discovered the works of Arab filmmakers.”

As he began experimenting with filmmaking on his own, the Saudi reality and lack of an industry, let alone film screenings in the country, was not helping. He got much closer to the international and then Arab cinema during his studies of history and literature at Harvard University, where he focused on post-colonial years.

In an interview for Screen International, Alsemari commented that “my time at Harvard exposed me to art and literature from the Arab world for the first time.”

He returned to Riyadh for a short while in 2015, but a year later he joined the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

The major breakthrough for the young filmmaker came in 2019, however, with his short film Dunya’s Day. The film’s protagonist lives in an affluent suburb of Riyadh where the camera follows Dunya, who is heading for a perfectly planned graduation party that ends with disaster, as she is left without help from her household.

Through Dunya, Alsemari unveils realities of Saudi society and customs, with one reviewer saying, “a little empathy towards Dunya’s situation becomes strangely relatable.”

Alsemari’s debut as a director and scriptwriter brought him much more attention than he would have ever anticipated. Upon Saudi Arabia loosening the restriction on cinema and opening public screenings in 2018, Dunya’s Day was the first short film screened commercially in the country. Meanwhile, the film began making waves on the international scene.

The film won the Short Film Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival’s International Film Section (2019) and was nominated for numerous other awards at many international festivals. It’s screening at the Cairo International Film Festival’s 41st edition marks Dunya’s Day MENA Premiere.

With all the success, Alsemari finds that among the biggest rewards for his film was the Saudi audience’s reaction to the protagonist and the plot. In the discussion, Alsemari revealed that “many women approached us saying that the film resonates with their realities and that they relate a lot to Dunya. The protagonist is simply one of the many girls of Saudi Arabia.”

He added that his international education opened his horizons on many aspects of cinema, but at the same time he is interested in making films that reflect on his home country.

“With Dunya’s Day it was a perfect marriage of the character and the location. It is a film about a fierce woman, a woman from Saudi Arabia. However, through this character I also wanted to fight against the preconceptions about the Arab woman that many European countries still believe,” Alsemari said during the discussion.

In the segment of discussion where Melanie Goodfellow asked the Arab Stars of Tomorrow to clarify how they can benefit from their position in helping other young artists in the field, Alsemari stressed on the strong links he has with many of his colleagues.

While the director is still at the beginning of his creative journey, he underlines that building relations and trust with many people in the field, supporting as well as learning from the whole crew, are among the qualities he finds to be necessary in the cinema industry, as well as in personal and artistic development.

The Arab Stars Of Tomorrow, which this year was launched at the 41st edition of the Cairo International Film Festival and supported by Front Row and Kuwait National Cinema Company (KNCC), is the Screen International initiative aiming to showcase and support actors and directors from the MENA region who have made a significant impact in their field with a promise of much more to come.

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