Thursday, August 11, 2022

‘Born A King’ based on Saudi royal’s life to screen across GCC

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At a time when Hollywood is being heavily criticized for the lack of diversity in hiring actors, Saudi Arabia’s ‘Born A King’ is a refreshing watch for several reasons, one of which is an authentic narrative from the Kingdom, attention to detail and hiring Saudi actors in lead roles.

Produced by Oscar-winner Andrés Vicente Gómez and directed by AgustíVillaronga, nine-time recipient of the Goya award, the movie is a real-life account of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz’s first diplomatic mission to London when he was barely a teenager. The movie is the first feature film based on the life of a Saudi royal.

After the end of WWI, the victors – in particular Great Britain and France – turn their attention to establishing a new world order. Prince Faisal, son of the future unifier of Arabia, the Emir of the Nejd, Abdulaziz Al Saud, visits Europe to request non-interference from the great powers – a policy of neutrality that might pave the way for peace in the Middle East.

The diplomatic success that unfolds results in an incredible coming-of-age feature film. One might question why the producers failed to depict King Faisal’s life after his succession to the throne.

After all, his rule brought dramatic reforms in the Kingdom including the abolishment of slavery, the creation of a modern legal system and a flourishing Saudi economy.

Yet, the real remarkable story lies in the upbringing of King Faisal and how this mission paved his path to becoming a great leader. His passion to prove himself worthy as a leader and his subsequent success as a reformer in the Arab world can only be seen when the lens is zoomed in on his early life.

The movie depicts those early years of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz that won him respect and attention of the successors of WWI, making him one of the most influential rulers in Saudi Arabia.

Hiring actors of color

“From the very first moment, we knew we wanted to hire Saudi actors. I was very clear, they had to be Saudis,” Gomez told ARY News at the movie’s premiere in Dubai.

It comes as no surprise that US-based Saudi actor Rawkan Binbella, also known as Rawkan Abdul Wahid, was hired to play the part of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the future unifier of Arabia and the Emir of Nejd.

Binbella’s resemblance to the Saudi royal in real life is uncanny, a fact that he is no stranger to.

“I hope I was able to bring some of King Abdulaziz’s personality to life. It’s such an honour to resemble such a great man. I’ve actually always received that picture of King Abdulaziz as a young man. I was very happy when I got the role,” he said.

Abdullah Ali – the actor playing the role of King Faisal – was a complete surprise to Gomez, who tested 200 actors for this role.

“Finally, by accident, we came across this talented man who was studying in an American school in Jeddah. I was very clear, they [the actors] had to be Saudis.”

Ali plays a convincing role as young royal, striking the perfect balance between portraying the naivety of a 13-year-old, a sense of pride and coming-of-age realization of someone who’s been entrusted a task beyond their years.

The film does not come without a star cast, however. It sees British actors Ed Skreinfrom and Hermione Corfield (Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) sharing the leading roles with Saudi actors.

An authentic narrative

While the movie lacks build-up and drama typical of Hollywood films of this genre, the authenticity of the narrative makes up for the missing plot by being believable and without the grandiose that may have made it unpalatable.

Gomez says with Born A King, he didn’t concern himself with creating “a good film” – he just “needed the support of a quality director.”

“The film cannot compete with Americans. We had a$20m dollar budget. They make movies with $200 million dollars. But we made a quality film, thanks to the help of Saudi,” said Gomez.

The narrative’s attention to detail and authenticity are worth noting and can be credited to none other than Prince Turki bin Faisal and his son Saud bin Turki al Faisal, who provided key insights about the Saudi royal for this movie.

Speaking to ARY News, King Faisal’s grandson, His Highness Saud bin Turki al Faisal, said that there is still so much more to be presented about King Faisal’s life.

“We found a lot of content not just in Saudi but in all the countries he has visited, there’s a lot of material left.”

Future of Saudi Cinema

His comments come at the right time, just as Saudi Arabia is opening up cinemas and intensifying efforts to increase tourism. It is probably a matter of time before a full-fledged film industry expands in the Kingdom.

Gomez recalled that when the project first began, Saudi Arabia still hadn’t opened up its cinema and so the film targeted an international audience. Echoing Saud bin Turki’s words, however, he says King Faisal’s life deserves a sequel – or several.

“At the time we began this project, Saudi Arabia still hadn’t opened up its cinema. We were expecting to make a film for the world market. For me as a producer, I make money by making movies. Like Superman, maybe we can make seven or eight movies. After all, [King Faisal] shaped the modern history of Saudi Arabia.”

Saud bin Turki al Faisal says the current political climate is the right time to present an authentic Saudi narrative.

“It’s time for us to tell our story. Movies are a very powerful way to do that,” he told ARY News.

To this end, Binbella hopes to continue his acting career both in Hollywood and Arab cinema.

“I hope to be a liaison between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia,” he says.

The film was shot on location in London over an eight-week period with another four weeks in Riyadh and the deserts of Saudi Arabia. The film releases in cinemas across the GCC in KSA, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman on September 26.

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