Rising Saudi Arabian star Yaqoub Alfarhan, who plays the titular role in hit MBC TV series “Rashash,” is attached to star in “Norah” a groundbreaking drama written and directed by Tawfik Alzaidi that is currently shooting in AlUla the sprawling area of Saudi desert and giant boulders that boasts an ancient city.

Set in 1990s Saudi Arabia, when conservatism was at its height and all forms of art and painting were banned for religion-related reasons, “Norah” sees Alfarhan (pictured) play an artist named Nader who has given up painting and moved to a remote village to be a schoolteacher. There he intersects with the film’s titular “Norah,” an illiterate orphaned young woman who is facing an arranged marriage in which she will be trapped and has a need  for self expression. She records her thoughts and memories into an old cassette recorder. This encounter unleashes the protagonist’s passion for art and, by extension, for a better life away from the village.

“This film really captures how Saudi people used to life their lives during a time, not so long ago, when artists were systematically stigmatized here,” said Alfarhan (pictured, above) speaking on the “Norah” set.

Alfarhan – who recently become a Saudi star by playing the titular Saudi Arabian drug trafficker convicted of murder and other crimes after being caught by police in the late 1980s in the big-budget “Rashash” skein, which was a game changer, points out that he and “Norah” director Alzaidi were both born in the 1980s and “are both the first generation of artists in our families.”

“Ever since I was very young I had a passion for creativity and art and was always trying to find out why it was forbidden in my society,” said Alzaidi who is now making his feature film debut after being part of the first wave of new Saudi directors to start making short films, ever since the country’s ban on cinema was lifted in 2017.

“While I was thinking and looking about for ideas for my first feature film I came across some of the stories from artists who had been suppressed in the 80’s and 90’s. Their stories resonated with me and I felt we were in the exact same situation. We were artists trying to create something in a society that was devoid of art,” he added.

The “Norah” script won the top prize of a funding award launched by the Saudi Film Commission’s Daw Film Competition, an initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture in September 2019 to support Saudi film production and champion the next generation of filmmakers.

Saudi TV and theater actor Abdullah Alsadhan (“Tash ma Tash,” “No Filter”) plays Abu Salem, the village chief who “has to mediate this situation,” he said. While there have been previous attempts to make really meaningful Saudi films, “this the first script I’ve read that really feels like a real movie that you can believe in,” the veteran thesp added.

Newcomer Maria Bahrawiu who plays “Norah” (pictured below) said that what’s special about her character who gradually becomes empowered thanks to art, is “that she’s ambitious: she wants to achieve her dreams; she’s strong, and she knows what she wants.”

“Norah” is being produced by U.S. producer Paul Miller, the former Doha Film Institute head of finance who shepherded “Scales” – which was Saudi’s submission for the Oscars in 2020 – and by Jordanian producer Sharif Majali. They are working with Saudi production companies Black Sugar Pictures and Nebras Films.

“Norah,” which is the first Saudi film to be shot in AlUla, is tapping into support from the Film AlUla film commission which is helping with logistics, crew, locations, casting and local expertise. The casting process to find local talent in AlUla for the film has also been key to maintaining the story’s authenticity.

AlUla film commissioner Stephen Strachan has pointed out that “Norah” is the first feature film to use a new film resort that has been recently set up with accommodation, offices, and now a pool, for film crew.

Saudi-financed Hollywood blockbuster “‘Kandahar,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and starring Gerard Butler, which wrapped in January, shot in AlUla and also in Jeddah.

Maria Bahrawiu