Saudi Director Meshal Al Jaser on Mixing Dating, Drugs and a Rabid Camel in Netflix’s ‘Naga’: ‘Every Good Story Is About a Character Making Bad Decisions’

Saudi Director Meshal Al Jaser on Mixing Dating, Drugs and a Rabid Camel in Netflix’s ‘Naga’: ‘Every Good Story Is About a Character Making Bad Decisions’

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Young Saudi director Meshal Al Jaser, who springs from the country’s vibrant YouTube scene, is making a splash with his madcap feature debut “Naga,” in which a young woman named Sara goes on a date and takes drugs in the desert. She then must overcome various obstacles, including a rabid camel, to get home before the curfew set by her punishment-prone father.

Produced by Saudi’s prominent Telfaz11 production company in tandem with Netflix, “Naga” marks the first Saudi film selected for Toronto’s Midnight Madness program and is now premiering locally to ravishing response at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah.

Born in Riyadh, Al Jaser began making films at the age of 17, during the country’s now lifted cinema ban. He spearheaded an infamous “Folaim” YouTube channel that garnered more than 200 million views.

In 2017, when Saudi Arabia revived its cinema industry and removed the ban on theaters, he was chosen to represent the government’s new industry with his film “Is Sumyati Going to Hell?,” which premiered via Paramount Studios and was acquired by Netflix. His absurdist sci-fi romance short “Arabian Alien” debuted at Sundance 2020, where it won a jury award.

At Red Sea Fest, Al Jaser spoke to Variety about making a movie that is being hailed as a game changer for the burgeoning Saudi film scene.

How did you come up with the story of “Naga”?

Well, I always wanted to do a story about the subculture of dating in Saudi. And at the same time, I grew up listening to stories about vicious camels. What intrigued me the most are the twisted stories about camels who are known to be spiteful and hold a grudge. Basically, I just wanted to do a story that starts romantic and ends up with someone getting beat up by a camel. So it became kind of a genre film.

What’s your personal connection to the film?

I mean, everything about it was personal. The surroundings, every location I picked is a place that I grew up in. Every type of dialogue terminology, the clothes, the style, the type of people. I tried to really surround the movie with the world that I grew up in and the world that still [exists] now. For example, most of my cast are not really actors, they’re just people that I hunted down and convinced to act. A lot of the locations that I chose are live locations — we barely built sets. So really surrounding myself with the authenticity gave it that texture.

About the drug use in the film, how authentic is that that? How bold is it to put that on screen in Saudi?

In terms of risk level, I feel like people now understand that it’s a fictional story, especially the new generation. And they perceive it as a fictional story. So I didn’t feel there is much risk, honestly, in what I presented. In terms of other choices I made, the other aspect is that every good story is always about a character making bad decisions. And it’s always good to have that in the beginning, so that it pays off.

This movie blends lots of genres. How aware were you of this aspect when writing?

It’s funny. When I actually first made the film, I told [the studio] it’s a thriller comedy. And then when they saw it, they thought it was more of a thriller. But then, some other people would say it’s a comedy. So it really comes down to your perspective. It’s very genre-bending. But when I was making it, I was just really telling the story. I wasn’t really focused on this is the thriller part, and this is the comedic part. I was just telling it all as an organic narration of a story, of a journey that just starts fun and gets basically messed up. But if you ask me what genre I think this film is, I would say it’s a thriller comedy.

The cinematography is very kinetic. Talk to me about the visual style.

My cinematographer is Ibraheem Alshangeeti and I also want to mention my co-writer, who is Nawaf Alshubaili, because when we were writing and deciding the cinematography in the shot list, we really wanted this to be a character-driven story. Meaning that it’s all from the character’s perspective. Whenever she looks at something, we look at it. It’s all from her perspective. And I wanted each camera movement to really represent the psychology of what’s going on in the film and working closely with Ibraheem, we made sure that that happens. So it’s really like the direction of the camera work is solely made by how the character is feeling.

Sara, the lead, played by Adwa Bader, is pretty feisty. Do you see this as a female empowerment story?

Honestly, I really wanted to tell an anti-hero story where the character at the end of the film chooses to embrace [her] flaw. You can clearly understand that at the end she chose the bad side of herself. And it’s a bittersweet type of situation. And that’s really what I wanted to go with all the characters in this film. I wanted everyone to question what is good and what is bad by making bad decisions. The same goes for the boyfriend character and for the poet character. So I really wanted this project to not be the Middle Eastern social drama. I mean, I like those [social] realism films. However, I wanted to make, let’s say, a genre-ish Middle Eastern film. And I hope it’s made it a new fashion, you know what I mean? That’s why I kind of chose to make her an anti-hero instead of just simply a victim.

How did you cast Adwa?

Adwa is a really good friend of mine, so I already knew her personality. We were close. As I said before, when I cast, I kind of try to find the person that I want instead of casting an actor to play a whole different role [from who they actually are]. And she had a bit of the personality and attitude that I wanted in my character. Of course, she’s a very sweet person. She’s not like the [Sara] character. She’s really nice. But she has that determination that the character needed, and I just believed she could do it. All I had to do is just make her feel comfortable on camera and trust the process and she did a great job. She really gave it 1,000% on set.

Was Adwa already a professional actress?

No, she wasn’t. She was a professional model and then I cast her in a comedy sketch on YouTube seven years ago in a fight scene. And when I saw how feisty she was, I was like, “OK, she can definitely do this role.” It’s a physical role, and that’s hard to do. It’s one thing to know how to act with expressions. It’s another thing to fall on the ground and do Jackie Chan stuff.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Watch the trailer for “Naga” below.

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