Saudi women set the bar for film

The Girls Who Burned The Night, a short film produced and directed by young Saudi Arabian women in Jeddah, has been critically well received ahead of hitting local cinemas.

Directed by Sara Mesfer, the film has had an impressive run at local and international films festivals. It was selected by the Red Sea International Film Festival in June for Saudi Cinema Nights, a two-day programme showcasing short films in the kingdom.

It also screened at the Beirut International Women Film Festival, Toronto Arab Film Festival, Cairo International Film Festival and, most recently, at the Shortfest of Palm Springs International Film Festival in California, where it was nominated for three awards including Best of the Festival, Best Live-Action Short 15 Minutes and Under, and Best Student International Short.

Starring Jana Qomari and Haya Maraabi, the film was co-produced by Jawaher Alamri and Raghad Bajbaa, and was filmed in Jeddah over the course of five days in 2019. It tells the story of two sisters who embark on a journey after a small act of rebellion helps them understand each other and themselves in a way they never imagined.

In Mesfer’s words“It resonated with us at the time. I think most people will be able to relate to the feelings we experience at a certain time in our lives.”

Making the film gave her an opportunity to present her ideas and art in its truest form. “Whether it is liked or disliked, it is about presenting the idea and it’s up to people to decide how they feel.”

The re-introduction of cinema in Saudi Arabia has created more top-level jobs and new roles for women in the kingdom’s industry. Previously, most filmmaking and leadership roles were allocated to men.

“We grew up watching women get the ‘easier-to-do’ jobs as opposed to directing and producing. I remember the moment when I saw Haifa Al Mansour’s (the first Saudi female director) work and that is when I realised that I, too, have a chance of becoming a Saudi film director,” Mesfer says.

The filmmaker is currently working on another project estimated to be released in 2022.

Alamri, who studied film with Mesfer, recalls casting being the most challenging part of the production’s initial stages.

“We started that first because it’s the most important element in the film and the hardest at the same time, because we did not have young actresses in the scene,” she says.

The producers held their search for talented young girls at local schools. The film unit then spent four months rehearsing and getting to know each other.

“It was crucial the people we chose to work with were able to understand Sara’s vision,” Alamri says.

The producer is now writing and directing her first feature, Hala’s Aziz, and hopes to direct her third short film early next year. “We are really glad that we are leading this generation. The shift in culture is making the industry better and worth it.”

The film stars young actor Jana, who was 14 years old when the film was shot.

“They cast me when I was in school so, naturally, it was all very new to me but the team was extremely supportive which encouraged me to do it,” she says.

Jana is now heading to Stanford University to study politics and hopes to one day join the UN – but that does not mean she will give up acting. “I will pursue both and I am excited for my next film which will be released soon.”

Co-producer Bajbaa has worked as an assistant director on more than 10 films, as well as TV and Netflix shows.

“The making of this film has been joyful and yet challenging in many parts, but my favourite was scouting for locations, and the car trips with the team to the set where we shared a lot of memories and made a lot of decisions,” Bajbaa says.

The Girls Who Burned The Night will  be out in Saudi cinemas later in the year.

This article was first published by The National