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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 Roshn Front’s Vox cinema, 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 acceptance at Cannes shows how important this film is, and it also shows how much progress the film industry has made here.

“Although this is just the beginning, we are starting to see the results of the tremendous work that is going on now.

“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 Saudi films.”

“Norah” was a big hit 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 the jury’s special prize, making it the best-known Saudi film at Cannes.

The film is set in a remote Saudi village in the 90s, where Norah (played by Bahrawi) dreams of being able to see the horizon beyond her small village. As a new teacher, Nader (played by Al-Farhan) travels to his hometown and Norah’s world begins to open up through art, knowledge and creativity, prompting her to learn more about her own family history.

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

While it was first screened last December at the Red Sea International Film Festival, where it won the “Best Saudi Film” award, the national theatrical premiere marks the culmination of the film’s journey to its target audience, Saudi audiences.

Bahrawi said: “It was a surprise to me that I was chosen for the role just two weeks before the production. But fortunately, my first role in a film was successful and reached the international audience. I’m so proud and happy that it’s out in theaters today for the world to see and I’m excited to see people’s reactions.

“I have always dreamed of being an actress since I was young 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. “

Further increasing audience participation, a contest was presented to the general public last Thursday in which all girls named Norah were asked to play a role. About 500 girls participated and two winners received tickets to the special screening.

“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 wonderful choice of location,” said Bahrawi.

Although 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 mini-series ‘Rashash’.

“There are so many similarities between me and the character, so this is a very personal project for me and very dear to my heart, especially after the success of the Cannes Film Festival,” he said.

In preparation for the role, Al-Farhan spent time with a professional sketch artist to learn the craft required for his role – even things as simple as holding a pencil properly.

He said that the initial sketches in the film were his own work, but the final result was “made 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 was also supported by Film AlUla, the Red Sea Film Fund and Generation 2030.

“Norah” was inspired by Al-Zaidi in 2015 to express something in it. In the same way that Al-Farhan’s character Nader depicts his feelings on sketchbooks and canvases, Al-Zaidi uses the big screen.

He told Arab News: “I love all forms of art, be it music, drawing or visiting museums, cinema embraces all these arts and presents them beautifully through the film crew.

“I wanted to create these emotions between two art-loving people, 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.

“There will always be challenges, but as they say, ‘success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan’… if you believe in yourself, you will achieve,” he said.

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