‘HWJN’ Director Says Film Will ‘Bridge the Gap’ for Fantasy in Saudi

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For the first time in its history, the Red Sea Film Festival opened with an Arab film, the world premiere of Yasir Al-Yasiri’s fantasy epic “HWJN.”

Speaking with Variety the morning after the film’s glitzy world premiere at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Jeddah, Yasiri described the premiere as a “surreal” experience. “When I went up on stage, it felt like the entire five-year journey was condensed into one moment. The film was written in Jeddah, shot in Jeddah and now opened in Jeddah. I still can’t believe it. It’s a fairytale.”

When asked if he could have imagined his film opening a Saudi film festival when he first began working on the project back in 2018 — the same year the Kingdom lifted a 35-year ban on cinema — Yasiri said he perceived the film as an “opportunity” at the time, despite being uncertain of its future release in the country.

“It was a bet, but not from my point of view. It might have been a bet from a distributor’s point of view, but I read the book and saw an opportunity to create something rarely tackled within Arab cinema. I knew we had it in us as filmmakers, as creatives to do something like this.”

“HWJN”
Courtesy of Red Sea Film Festival

“HWJN” is an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Ibraheem Abbas, which became a local literary phenomenon due to its pioneering combination of Western sci-fi tropes and Arabic culture and folklore. It pictures a world where the mythical entities of the Jinn are forced to live amongst humans, with
Hawjan (Baraa Alem) eventually falling in love with a human girl and embarking on an adventure-filled journey to reveal his mysterious lineage.

“I learned a lot about Jinn culture and their history,” said Yasiri of his research project. “What I wanted the most was to tap into the idea that there is no shared visual reference to Jinns because in our tradition and culture, we cannot see them, so no two Arabs share the same idea of what a Jinn looks like. It was a challenge, but a sweet one.”

Fantasy offerings are still a relative novelty within the Arab film industry. Genre films were a hot topic at last year’s edition of the Red Sea Film Festival’s industry program, with many executives demonstrating an interest in seeing fantasy films produced in Saudi. In this sense, “HWJN” feels like a direct response to the needs of a fast-growing market.

“Arabs are closer to fantasy than the Western world,” said Yasiri when asked about making a fantasy film in Saudi Arabia. “We created fantasy as part of our culture, we were just missing the tools to execute it on the big screen and TV. Now it’s the time. Many talented people have gathered experience from working abroad and are now working in our region. I believe [‘HWJN’] will help bridge the gap between what we have as a culture and what we can deliver.”

“I bet every Arab would love to see some of the stories we grew up with on screen,” he continued. “We know we are not up to Western standards yet, but it feels very authentic to us because it is rooted in our culture, so I hope ‘HWJN’ will be the first film to close this gap and encourage producers and studios to go full throttle when producing such genres.”

Not only is “HWJN” a fresh offering in terms of form, but it also features bold work below the line, with an intricate display of make-up, prosthetics and set and costume design. Demand for experienced below-the-line crew is one of the issues faced by the Saudi film industry as the market comes out of the decades-long cinema ban. The issue is currently being tackled by a series of training programs in the country, including the Red Sea Film Foundation’s Red Sea Lodge. Yasiri says the set was a learning opportunity for his cast and crew.

“I was always trying to share my enthusiasm and confidence for my crew’s work because it is my role as a director and a producer to make sure they believe in themselves and their talent. They just needed that extra push to trust they could do it, and, hopefully, the film will show people what we can do.”

The Red Sea Film Festival runs Nov. 30 – Dec. 9.

Post source: variety

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