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Saudi filmmaker Ali Kalthami: ‘It’s finally our time to present our lives as we really live them’ 

DUBAI: Want to discover a city? Watch a crime film about it. If none exists, then make your own. Visionary Saudi filmmaker Ali Kalthami has long been fascinated by the hidden subcultures in his home city of Riyadh. With “Mandoob,” his first feature film, he’s finally crafted a crooked window in and invited the world to peer through. And with the huge buzz created by the film’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere, it’s immediately clear that Saudi cinema will never be the same.  

“It’s funny, because I didn’t make this film with a foreign festival in mind,” Kalthami, one of the three co-founders of the hugely influential production company Telfaz11, tells Arab News. “I made it for my parents, friends, and the people of Saudi who have followed us since (YouTube series) ‘Khambalah.’ But it’s a genuine honor to be able to show this film at TIFF. It’s such a huge moment. 

“Everyone in that audience has in their minds a lot of stereotypes about Saudi, and it’s finally our time to present stories that speak to our lives as we really live them. And in doing that, we can show that we, too, speak the global language of film, know its history, and have joined the conversation,” he continues. 

Kalthami got idea for the film three years ago while hosting a private gathering with some of his famous friends during the COVID-19 pandemic. At one point, he welcomed a delivery driver — a ‘mandoob’ as they’re called in Arabic — to bring the food into his living room, and as the man looked around, Kalthami saw something in his eyes that shook something loose from his own past.  

“I’ll never forget that look. He stared at all these celebrities and he was, like, ‘Where am I?’ He was fascinated and confused, and I understood completely. I used to be in that position, too. I came from humble beginnings, and I was an outsider to this world,” he says. 

These days, it’s easy to see Kalthami as the ultimate insider. Over the last 12 years, the team at Telfaz11 have been responsible for shaping the taste of an entire generation through their many YouTube hits. With the record-breaking box office success of wrestling movie “Sattar” and a thriving Netflix multi-picture deal well underway, that loyal audience has shown it will follow them anywhere. How do you keep that going? The trick, Kalthami says, is to never lose sight of your “outsider” beginnings.  

“I think that outsiders who move inside never forget the soul of why we do what we do. If a corporation tried to create something like Telfaz11, they would probably craft it as a business first, thinking only about growth. When you’re somebody who didn’t plan for this success, you’re always thinking about intention,” he says. 

“We’re going into a future in which we need to consciously keep our local voice at the fore, or it will be lost. We need to do this the right way. For us, that means shedding light on the sorts of stories that corporations might shy away from, because we’re focused on more than just the bottom line,” he continues.  

Would a corporation come up with “Mandoob” or something similar? Almost certainly not. In it, a man at the end of his rope becomes a nighttime delivery driver. Desperate for cash to take care of his ailing father, he steals illegal items from smugglers and bootleggers and begins selling them himself, sinking deeper and deeper into a darkness that will inevitably swallow him whole. 

Kalthami was driven, first and foremost, to document his changing hometown before it transformed beyond recognition. A student of film history, he’s keenly aware that, in every decade, the films that capture a city in all its beauty are those that don’t shy away from its ugliness. Films such as “The Bicycle Thieves,” “Taxi Driver,” and “Thief” capture the essence of a time and place — something he hoped “Mandoob” could do as well.  

“So much of that is in how we present the film visually. Usually, when you see this city, it’s in commercials that only want to show you the beauty of Riyadh, but it’s a beauty without tension, so it’s missing truth,” says Kalthami. “Our aim was for every shot, every location, to reflect the emotional journey of Fahad, and at the same time show the history of this city — both its past and future (are) strikingly present with every turn of his wheel.” 

Naturally, doing something no one has ever done before presents you with challenges no one has yet managed to overcome. Kalthami worked tirelessly day and night to find and gain access to locations for the film, sending camera crews to every street in the city to discover locations that could subliminally communicate its transformation even if only shown for a moment. In doing so, he began to understand Riyadh in a way he never had.  

“I hope that, in 50 years, people look back on ‘Mandoob’ as a document of this city and our society. I want them to turn this on and say, ‘Ah, this was the time everything changed. This is what used to be taboo, this was the way of life, this was how people interacted with technology back then.’ It’s an intentional time capsule,” he says.   

Though the film is still fresh, it’s a document of a change in Kalthami’s own life, too. He’s just turned 42, and the film is an encapsulation of the interests that he’s always had but never before had the chance to explore. And as much as he’s enjoyed the playful nature with which he and his partners have approached varying material over the last dozen years, he can no longer afford to approach his future without a clear plan. 

“I have to be practical about my timeline — I’m not in my 20s anymore. I can make probably 10 to 12 films before I’m in my 70s, and I want to do every film right. That’s going to require a lot of reflection and a lot of conversations with the wisest people I know to be sure I’m headed in the right direction,” he says. 

Making the film has made a difference to Kalthami’s everyday life, too. Now, when he opens the front door to a delivery driver, he no longer looks only at the food in his hand. Instead, he sees someone who may be in the thick of his own struggles, and could use some kindness and understanding.  

“Now, I look them in the eye, and I smile, and I start a conversation. We’re so obsessed with these apps and seme to almost think they come equipped with robots,” Kalthami says. “But you never know the stories these men have to tell.” 

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