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Cairo International Film Festival

Saudi short film challenges image of Arab women on screen

Poster for "Dunya's Day"
Poster for "Dunya's Day" Imdb.com

Young Saudi director Raed Alsemari is seeking to change the stereotype of the Arab woman in film. His short film Dunya's Day takes a comical look at the everyday women in his hometown Riyadh and is up for two awards the Cairo International Film Festival and is now up for two awards.

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“It began as sort of a story about a woman who is seeking status, who, on the day of her big graduation, is abandoned by all of her household staff and left to fend for herself,” Raed Alsemari tells RFI.

Raed Alsemari, the Saudi director of 'Dunya's Day' in Cairo, November 24, 2019
Raed Alsemari, the Saudi director of 'Dunya's Day' in Cairo, November 24, 2019 RFI / Anne-Marie Bissada

The young Saudi director currently divides his time between New York city, where he is finishing off his films studies, and Riyadh.

His 15-minute short film already won the Jury Award for International Fiction at the Sundance competition, making it an official selection for an Oscar.

Here at the CIFF, he’s up for two awards, the special jury award and the Youssef Chahine award.

Dunya: a glimpse into the modern Arab woman

“There are widespread tropes about Arab and Muslim women, and I think both…Western and Arab filmmakers are guilty of perpetuating them,” laments Alsemari.

He cites the repeated narratives of the helpless and oppressed woman, or the woman who sacrificed everything for her family. “These are not human or empowering – or really representative of the nuance in the Arab world,” stresses the director.

The 15-minute film follows Dunya, a Saudi woman who has been abandoned by all her maids, in what turns into a comical and eye-opening look into the daily lives of many women in the Kingdom.

All the acting was performed by local actors. But finding the woman to portray Dunya proved to be difficult.

“We needed an actor who wouldn’t judge Dunya or trivialise her need for status and who would really empathise with the character,” explains Alsemari.

Dunya, played by Sara Balghonaim, sits in anticiaption of her big evening in the short film 'Dunya's day'
Dunya, played by Sara Balghonaim, sits in anticiaption of her big evening in the short film 'Dunya's day' Sundance festival

Social norms

The short film has already garnered international attention as it depicts a comical situation in a country not normally for known for having a lighter side – let alone a growing film industry.

“I think in a nutshell, it’s about the small absurdities of being young and privileged in Saudi, and specifically this notion that...many in my generation relate to – of growing up and being told to 'be yourself, just not in public’,” notes the director.

While he doesn’t consider himself a rebel of going against the grain of traditional Saudi norms, he likes the challenge of creating film that ask questions “about society and class and the generational gap that we have”. 

Filling that gap with film

The Saudi film industry hasn’t yet evolved to the same levels as its regional neighbours. The Kingdom just opened cinemas last year, to finally quench the thirst of its people.

“Movie theatres are open and very much booming. There are jokes on Saudi twitter about how it’s easier to get a flight ticket than a movie ticket.”

People have to book movie tickets, adds Alsemari, online a week in advance, so there’s this growing need for films to be screened and to be produced.

Already, the young director is the first from the Kingdom to have a film play at Sundance. 

Dunya comes back

With the positive reaction to Dunya’s Day, movie-goers will soon be able to see Dunya in a new feature-length film – this time getting married.

“I think there’s just enormous potential at seeing a Riyadh wedding dramatised on screen”, says Alsemari, who has already begun working on the next installement.

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