In new trend, Saudi film explores cross-cultural tensions facing Arabs in the United States
LONDON - “The Arabian Warrior” is a Saudi film that depicts the challenges and everyday tensions faced by Arab Americans and more recent immigrants to the United States.
The film tells the story of Anmar, a young Saudi man played by Amir el-Masry, who lives in the United States with his family. Anmar dreams of becoming a top football professional despite his father’s opposition.
Anmar is caught between two cultures. Despite living with racism and cultural stereotypes, he feels a sense of belonging in American culture and is convinced of the need to accept both its negative and positive aspects. He tries to reconcile the traditions and customs of his Saudi society, which still have a hold on his family, and the traditions and culture of his adoptive society in America.
Masry stars in the film with a stellar cast of Arab and US actors. Anmar’s father is played by Egyptian actor Ayman Samman and US actor Patrick Fabian plays Anmar’s football coach.
“The Arabian Warrior” is the first feature film by Saudi director Ayman Khoja. It is the first Saudi film to focus on the life and concerns of the Arab ethnic minority community in the United States.
The film comes in a Saudi context of cultural overture that includes the promotion of movie theatres in the kingdom. Besides the United States, the film has been screened in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt.
“The Arabian Warrior” is not the only film dealing with the experiences of Arab communities in Western societies. There have been many previous productions including “Amreeka” by Palestinian-American director Cherien Dabis and “Mariam” by Saudi director Faiza Ambah.
These works, however, were directly produced in the West. Other Arab productions that have dealt with the topic have mostly maintained a safe distance with respect to Western societies and did not go deeply into the cultural tensions and daily struggles by Arabs in those societies.
“The Arabian Warrior” does not touch upon life in Saudi Arabia. It stands between Western-produced and Arab-produced and -made films. It is a joint Saudi-American production and depicts life in the United States. The style of the film is American in terms of its photography and narrative structure.
What also sets the film apart is the absence of Saudi actors, even though it is a Saudi film. In practically the whole film, Masry speaks English but Samman speaks his lines in a Saudi dialect.
Masry is an Egyptian actor based in Britain. Arab audiences know him from his roles in Egyptian films but also through his work in US and British films and series, including in Woody Harrelson’s “Lost in London” and Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater.”
Since the lifting of the ban on cinemas, Saudi Arabia has become a promising market for Arab and foreign films and Arab and international production companies have started targeting the market.
“The Arabian Warrior” was part of a series of films produced with Saudi funds and that discuss social issues related to Saudi society and Saudis abroad.
This constitutes a new development because such socially relevant films were not available, except for a handful of experiments outside Saudi Arabia, which, of course, could not be shown in the kingdom.
Among the films recently shown in Saudi cinemas is “Al Shehana,” which tells the story of the kidnapping by terrorists of a Saudi woman and her daughter while on a trip abroad. The film was directed by Khalid al-Hagar and stars Abdullah al-Jarayan, Maysoun al-Ruwaili, Tariq al-Nafisi and Khalid Saqr.
Also being shown is “Amra and the Second Wedding,” which discusses polygamy and its effects on family bonds. It was directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh and stars Shaimaa Tayeb, Khairia Nazmi and Mohammed al-Hamdan.
There have also been many short feature films produced recently.
All those were among films screened during the fifth Saudi Film Festival in Dammam. More than 50 directors attended the festival and 58 feature films were shown.
The Saudi Ministry of Culture recently announced the International Red Sea Film Festival, to take place next March in Jeddah, an ambitious step that will push greater cinematic openness in Saudi Arabia.