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

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

Al-Farhan told Arab News: “The fact that it was accepted at Cannes is an indication of how important this film is and also an indication of how much progress the film industry has (made) here.

“Although it is still early days, we are starting to see the results of the tremendous work that is going on right now.

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

“Norah” was a huge success 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 Jury Mention, making it the most recognizable Saudi film at Cannes.

The film takes place in a remote Saudi 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) travels to her hometown and Norah’s world begins to open up through art, knowledge and creativity, leading her to discover more about her own family history.

“The fact that I was chosen for the role only 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 for the world to see, and I am thrilled with the response of the people,” Bahrawi told Arab News.

Although it was first screened last December at the Red Sea International Film Festival, where it won the “Best Saudi Film” award, the national cinema premiere is the culmination of the film’s journey to its target 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 out in theaters today for the world to see, and I’m thrilled with 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 appeared in my first film as a lead role… AlUla was the place that made my first dream come true. “

In order to further promote public participation, a contest was presented to the public last Thursday, inviting all girls named Norah to participate. About 500 girls participated, and two winners received tickets to a special event before the screening.

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

While the film is both 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, so this is a very personal project for me and it’s so close to my heart, especially after the achievement at the Cannes Film Festival,” he said.

While preparing for the role, Al-Farhan spent time with a professional sketch artist 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 “done by 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 inside himself. In the same way that Al-Farhan’s character, Nader, depicts his emotions on sketchbooks and canvases, Al-Zaidi uses a large canvas.

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

“I wanted to create these feelings 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 evolve and grow towards global horizons, Al-Zaidi is confident that the industry can overcome the challenges.

“Challenges will always be there, but as they say, ‘success has many fathers and failure is an orphan’…if you believe in yourself, you will reach your goal,” he said.

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