Saudi filmmaker Tawfik al-Zaidi gets candid in Cannes

'Norah' is the first Saudi film to be featured at the Cannes Film Festival. In an interview with Al Majalla, its director discusses the challenges he faced and how he feels about the landmark moment.

Saudi film director Tawfik al-Zaidi
Saudi film director Tawfik al-Zaidi

Saudi filmmaker Tawfik al-Zaidi gets candid in Cannes

Cannes, France: Saudi Arabia has scored its first official Cannes selection slot with its groundbreaking drama Norah, directed by Tawfik al-Zaidi. The film is part of the Un Certain Regard selection, which aims to capture and explore new cinematic visions from around the world.

Al Majalla sat down with the Saudi film director in Cannes before the screening of his film. Below are excerpts from the interview.

How do you feel seeing your film's poster on the walls of the Cannes Film Festival?

I received a lovely comment from a French journalist who told me that the poster reminded him of an advertisement for an exhibition on portrait art. I think the poster powerfully conveys the film's subject, so I was happy to hear such a compliment.

I'm proud that Norah is the first Saudi film to be featured in the Un Certain Regard category, but if another Saudi film had been selected, I would still be happy. To have one of its films featured in one of the world's most prestigious film festivals is a milestone for Saudi Arabia, and the fact that Norah was the film to do so fills me with pride.

Read more: Saudi Arabia to make its debut at Cannes with 'Norah'

How did the film come about?

I wrote the film in 2015. Before that, I had written several stories, but I felt that Norah's story mirrored my experience as a filmmaker back then.

I wanted to write about art and an artist who loves art because I believe art can convey ideas and emotions to people without the need for an intermediary. Art speaks directly to a person and serves as a means of communication between people. I poured all those feelings and ideas, including my love for cinema and filmmaking, into Norah.

I started with the story, wrote a treatment, and then worked on the first draft in 2015. In 2017, I was able to secure funding, but it wasn't enough to make the high-quality film I had envisioned. I knew what the final product would look like from the very beginning.

The film certainly stands out for its cinematography and production techniques. Can you walk us through the process and share any challenges you faced?

From the beginning, I had a clear artistic and directorial vision, and I was unwilling to compromise on it. The film could have been finished much sooner had I caved into pressure from production houses that wanted to fund it. For example, some houses offered partial funding but still wanted their names in the film credits.

Another time, I was asked to have a director oversee the project and my vision. They even wanted to change the film's ending. I stood firm and turned down the offers because I didn't want anyone to interfere with my artistic vision.

When I wrote the script, I envisioned everything and how it would be. It is the coming together of all these different elements that make the film shine. While the average viewer may not understand the importance of these details, they can definitely feel the film's overall aesthetic.

The film features many outdoor scenes. What was it like to film in the summer?

I originally wanted to film during the winter, but due to some delays, we ended up shooting at the end of the winter season. The weather was cold at night and extremely hot during the day, and the camera frequently malfunctioned in the heat. We had to place it inside a car and cover it with ice to cool it down before we could resume shooting.

Everything that could have gone wrong on that day, did. But these are the types of situations and how you deal with them are what defines you as a director. It's about taking charge, rolling with the punches, not losing your composure in the face of adversity, and addressing each issue, one at a time. Directors need to be able to adapt to different circumstances.

Actress Maria Bahrawi while filming the movie

The film features three generations of actors—from the oldest, Abdullah Al-Sadhan, to Yagoub Alfarhan and finally, Maria Bahrawi, in her first on-screen experience. Tell us about your experience working with such different age groups.

I envisioned this from the very beginning of the scriptwriting process. During the casting process, I wanted to find actors of different ages and experiences. Casting and chemistry between the actors play a crucial role in any cinematic success.

I treated each actor as a person with their own emotions and I tried to bring out these emotions in a way that best reflected the character's personality. Of course, the way I collaborated and discussed this was different with each actor. For example, the children in the film viewed Yagoub as a mentor of sorts, so I tried to convey my directions to them through him.

Did you have to change anything during filming, and how did you handle this?

I would call them compromises, not changes. This can be related to creative aspects, production or finances. I worked hard to cement the film's creatives before moving on to the financial aspects. Regardless, a director must be flexible enough to face any change. No matter how prepared you are, you will encounter situations and challenges you must handle professionally.

I'm proud that Norah is the first Saudi film to be featured in Cannes, but if another Saudi film had been selected, I would still be happy.

Saudi film director Tawfik al-Zaidi

How did you deal with the film in terms of editing or deleting scenes, especially since the film remained in post-production for over a year?

I'm the kind of person who captures what they want. As the saying goes, the first draft is the worst draft, and the same applies to editing. So, I learned that the most important thing a director can do is to see the worst version of their film so they can work on it and produce the best possible outcome. Lighting and music are helpful and necessary for any good work.

When I finished it, I returned to Riyadh and Al Ula, feeling as if the film was a child between life and death. I was in debt and had no budget. But when you believe in yourself and reconsider everything, you find solutions to your problems.

Someone once asked me what the worst thing about the film was. I told them it was the fact that I directed it. It made me wonder why I did that. When I saw the first draft, I felt the need to rethink it, reaffirming the importance of a director seeing their film in its worst version.

So, I started working on re-editing the film from scratch, producing the final version just as I envisioned it. It turned out that the issue was not so much a mistake but rather the need to listen to oneself and rearrange things.

font change

Related Articles