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RIYADH: The award-winning Saudi film “Norah” premiered in the Kingdom on Thursday after an international success at the Cannes Film Festival.

A special screening was held on Wednesday evening at the Vox Cinema on Roshn Front, where director Tawfik Al-Zaidi attended along with the film’s star Maria Bahrawi and her acclaimed co-stars Yaqoub Al-Farhan and Abdullah Al-Sadhan.

Al-Farhan told Arab News: “The reception at Cannes is a sign of how important this film is and also an indication of how much progress the film industry has (made) here.

“Although it’s only the beginning, we’re starting to see the results of the tremendous work that’s going on.

“I am very positive about the future. If this is the beginning, I think in five or 10 years we will see a lot of great films from Saudi Arabia.”

“Norah” won big at the 78th Cannes International Film Festival, where it was an official selection for the “Un Certain Regard” competition, one of the event’s most critical titles. It also received a special recognition from the jury, making it the most recognized Saudi film at Cannes.

The film is set in a remote Saudi Arabian village in the 1990s, where Norah (played by Bahrawi) dreams of seeing the horizons beyond her small village. As a new teacher, Nader (played by Al-Farhan) arrives in her hometown and Norah begins to open up to the world through art, knowledge and creativity, leading her to discover more about her own family history.

“The fact that I was cast in the role just two weeks before the production was a surprise to me. But, fortunately, my first role in the film was successful and reached an international audience. I am very proud and happy that it will be in theaters today and the world will see it, and I am excited about people’s reactions,” Bahrawi told Arab News.

While it was first shown last December at the Red Sea International Film Festival, where it won the “Best Saudi Film” award, the nationwide theatrical release is the culmination of the film’s journey to its intended audience: the Saudi public.

Bahrawi said: “The fact that I was cast in the role just two weeks before the production was a surprise to me. But, fortunately, my first role in the film was successful and reached an international audience. I’m very proud and happy that it’s going to be in theaters today for the world to see, and I’m excited about people’s reactions.

“Since I was young, I always dreamed of being an actress, and today I can say that I have achieved it and played the lead role in my first film… AlUla was the city that made my first dream come true. “

Public participation was taken even further and last Thursday a competition was introduced to the public inviting all girls named Norah to take part. About 500 girls participated and two winners received tickets to a special screening event.

“Norah” is the first Saudi film to be shot entirely in AlUla. “The city itself and its locations really complemented the story of the film, so it was a great choice for this location,” Bahrawi said.

While the film is Bahrawi’s big screen debut and Al-Zaidi’s first feature film, it was also a personal experience for Al-Farhan, who is widely known for his role in the TV mini-series ‘Rashash’.

“There are so many similarities between me and the character, which is why it’s a very personal project for me and it’s so dear to me, especially after its success at the Cannes Film Festival,” he said.

In preparation for the role, Al-Farhan spent time with a professional draftsman to learn the craft for his role – even simple things like holding a pencil correctly.

He said the initial sketches in the film were his own work, but the final results were “from a real artist”.

The production was supported by the Film Commission through Daw, a national initiative to support and encourage Saudi filmmakers. The film also received support from Film AlUla, Red Sea Film Fund and Generation 2030.

The inspiration for “Norah” came to Al-Zaidi in 2015 from his need to express something within himself. Just as Al-Farhan’s character, Nader, displays his feelings on sketchbooks and canvases, Al-Zaidi uses the big screen.

He told Arab News: “I am a lover of art in all its forms, be it music, drawing or visiting museums, cinema embraces all these arts and shows them beautifully through a film crew.

“I wanted to create these emotions between two people who love art, Norah and Nader. Art is a means of communication between people and also a means of expression.”

As the Saudi film scene continues to develop and grow towards global horizons, Al-Zaidi is confident that the industry can overcome the challenges.

“Challenges will always be there, but as the saying goes, ‘success has many fathers but failure is an orphan’… if you believe in yourself, you will get there,” he said.

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