Saudi filmmaker Abdulaziz Alshlahei (“The Tambour of Retribution,” “Zero Distance”) is set to direct timely drama “Hobal,” about a Saudi family living in isolation in the desert during the early 1990s. The film will be shot in NEOM, the sprawling production hub in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern corner.
“Hobal” will be Alshlahei’s third feature, segueing from his groundbreaking social issues drama “The Tambour of Retribution,” about the forbidden love between an executioner’s son and a wedding drummer’s daughter in turn-of-the-century Riyadh. “Tambour” scored two prizes at the Cairo Film Festival, was released on Netflix, and was Saudi Arabia’s submission for the 2022 best international feature film Oscar.
In “Hobal,” the Saudi family is following strict instructions from their grandfather to remain confined in the desert during the early 1990s, when a series of events shakes the family’s foundation and finds them in a struggle between life and death. The drama, which is bound to establish a contrast with present life in Saudi, where tradition is giving way to a more modern lifestyle, stars Jordanian actor Mohammed Altoyan (“Tash ma Tash”) and Saudi’s Mishal Almutairi (“Love, Life & Everything in Between”), along with an all-Saudi cast.
The scriptwriter on “Hobal” is Mufarrej Al-Majfel, who is among the winners of the Saudi Film Commission’s Daw Film Competition award, an initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture in 2019 to nurture a new generation of filmmakers in the country where, until late 2017, movies were banned for religion-related reasons.
Cameras are set to roll on “Hobal” in September at NEOM’s Bajdah Studios, and in the desert and mountain landscapes along Saudi’s Red Sea coast in Tabuk. NEOM boasts world-class sound stages, a generous 40% plus rebate and local talent and crews. The locally-financed film will benefit from production support provided by NEOM, who are assisting with crew, location scouting, logistics and on-the-ground production expertise.
“Since 2018, we have been thinking about unique locations to shoot our film. We decided on NEOM, and specifically Bajdah, where the captivating landscapes will be an influential and integral part of the narrative,” said Alshlahei (pictured above) in a statement. He added that anamorphic lenses will be used “to do justice” to the film’s “majestic” setting.
Commented Wayne Borg, managing director of media industries, entertainment, and culture at NEOM: “We are thrilled to be the location of choice for Abdulaziz Alshlahei’s latest homegrown feature ‘Hobal.’ We are looking forward to supporting him in every step of the way to bring his vision to the screen, in what is a very exciting time for the local industry.”
“There is a huge appetite for compelling authentic stories from the region across a range of genres that are now transcending borders,” Borg added. “Supporting the new generation of trailblazing filmmakers and talent is of strategic significance to our industry and is central to creating a film ecosystem as we cement our position as the regional gateway to the industry.”
Other projects hosted and supported by NEOM over the past 18 months include Rupert Wyatt’s $150 million Hollywood epic “Desert Warrior,” starring Anthony Mackie and Sir Ben Kingsley, and Bollywood blockbuster “Dunki,” directed by Rajkumar Hirani and starring Shahrukh Khan. It has also served as the location for the first regional reality TV show, “Million Dollar Island,” as well as “Rise of the Witches,” a 10-part adaptation of a famous Saudi fantasy book series. “Rise of the Witches” marks the region’s biggest-budget TV series ever, produced by Middle East powerhouse broadcaster and streamer MBC. The MBC soap “Exceptional,” which will be a 200-episode-a-year show, is set to start shooting at NEOM in July.