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Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing profound social change, following the progressive lifting of restrictions since the late 2010s. The film “Dancing on Fire,” currently in development, directed by Hana Al-Omair and produced by Soha Samir, who are both co-writers, highlights the joy and freedom of women in tribal communities in pre-oil Saudi Arabia.

Al-Omair says: “I was immediately attracted to the story, the minute I learned that Saudi women were dancing and singing with men in public in the 1920s, because that was rooted in Saudi culture.”

The project received the $75,000 MBC Academy/Shahid prize, in return for acquisition of distribution rights in the Arab region, during the Red Sea Souk Awards.

Zeinab Abu Alsamh, general manager of MBC Studios-KSA, commented: “’Dancing on Fire’ is a film that has a distinctive Saudi narrative reflecting a strong authentic female vision. It’s a film that couldn’t have been made at a better time. We need more stories told by women about women. It’s a powerful empowering story and I believe the whole world will connect with it.”

Hana Al-Omair and Soha Samir (Courtesy of Hana Al-Omair, Soha Samir)

Samir says that she remembers how, as a young child growing up in Saudi Arabia, her life was suddenly transformed in the 1980s, with the imposition of face and body coverings and a major curtailment of rights. She sees the project as a way to come to terms with this traumatic period in her life, not by making a political film, but as a celebration of life.

“I think this project will help Saudi women of today realize that many new rights and power are actually about recovering personal freedoms that we had in the past.”

The project is adapted from best-selling novel “Divers of the Desert,” by Saudi female novelist Amal Al-Faran.

It is one of six Saudi projects that attended the 10-month Red Sea Lodge residency program, organized in cooperation with the TorinoFilmLab.

Al-Omair cowrote and directed the first Saudi Netflix original miniseries “Whispers” – an eight-episode thriller about a family facing the death of the family patriarch. The series was launched with a major promotional campaign and Al-Omair says she received positive feedback from viewers around the world.

She has also directed episodes for well-known Saudi TV shows such as “Without Filter,” for SBC in 2018, and the dark comedy series “Lockdown,” for MBC in 2021.

Al-Omair works at MBC, where she manages the content development team that originates and works on original Saudi shows. She is developing another feature film and a TV series and is also the head of the New Saudi Cinema Association, founded in 2021, which is organizing the Saudi Film Festival.

“There are more and more women working in the industry,” she says. “The proportion for directors is not yet half, but we are getting there throughout the industry – above the line and below the line.”

Samir works as a content developer for TV networks in Egypt, where she also produces TV shows and series. She wrote, directed and produced two shorts – “Flaming Red” and “Photoshop” – that enjoyed success on the festival circuit.

Al-Omair previously took part in the Red Sea Lodge, in its first edition in 2019, before the Red Sea Fest was created, as part of the team for the project “Sharshaf,” which won the grand prize.

Samir says that the experience of attending the 10-month Lodge program for “Dancing on Fire” was eye-opening. “We came with a full script. They tore it apart. We started from scratch. They said ‘What do you find most passionate and then focus on that.’ The first version was also about war between the tribes. We have now focused on the women’s story.”

The film takes place in a green valley known as a Wadi. “It’s a very ancient place, which has a very rich culture, in terms of music, songs and certain rituals,” says Samir. “It’s in the middle of Saudi Arabia. It was always a place where caravans and traders stopped. There are elements of different cultures. People used to go pearl-diving in the waters. You have agriculture and palm trees.”

Al-Omair says she is delighted with the award from MBC Studio. “It’s a very exciting time in Saudi Arabia at the moment. We have been dreaming about this for many years. Now we are seeing our dreams coming true. There’s a lot of support, in terms of funds, festivals, workshops. There is still a great deal to be done. We don’t have an established industry yet. In a few years’ time, the scene will be completely different.”