Ali Kalthami on highlighting sidelined perspectives in his debut feature Mandoob

The film, which recently broke opening weekend records for a Saudi release, is currently showing in UAE cinemas

Mandoob shows an aspect of the Saudi capital that lies in the shadow of the glitz and opulence. Photo: Telfaz11
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With his first feature film, Ali Kalthami tells a contemporary Riyadh story but from an unlikely, even fringe perspective.

Mandoob shows an aspect of the Saudi capital that lies in the shadow of the glitz and opulence. It revolves around Fahad, a courier who, through a strange turn of events, steals illegal goods from local bootleggers to pay for his father’s medical bills. Unsurprisingly, the act pits him and his family in the crosshairs of a crime syndicate, propelling the film into tense, dark and at times comedic territories.

The film, which is currently screening in UAE cinemas, treads along a fresh frontier in the Saudi filmmaking effort, specifically in its exploration of unpublicised experiences.

A pivotal scene within Mandoob is when Fahad delivers food to a penthouse apartment in Riyadh and has a glimpse of how the upper echelon lives. It presents the moment when the film’s absurdities begin to unravel and Fahad takes on a path that leads him to Riyadh’s underbelly. Besides its integral position within the plot, the scene also holds the key to how the film’s storyline came about.

“There was a moment in Riyadh, where I was in a gathering and this gathering had famous people, some well-known faces, and a [courier] knocks on the door,” Kalthami says. “He was delivering food, and he started staring at the people at the event. He was shocked. I was just watching him and feeling for him. He reminded me of myself.”

Kalthami himself has been on both sides of the proverbial threshold. Having held his share of odd jobs, the co-founder of the influential Saudi production company Telfaz11 says he knows what it feels like to “not be noticed".

The memory of the get-together, juxtaposed by the courier’s apparent awe, perfectly encapsulated for Kalthami the breadth of experiences that populate Riyadh. To him, the moment was symbolic of contemporary Saudi, and it was the present that he wanted to explore in his debut feature.

“I met with my co-writer [Mohammed Algarawi] and said this story could be good,” Kalthami says. “It is about now. It needs to be about Saudi now. I don’t want to go into the past. I don’t want to delve into something in the future as well. Saudi now is so important to talk about.”

Having written and directed several shorts, Kalthami says he wanted to stay focused with his debut feature-length work. It was integral that no matter where the story strayed, it remained sharply concerned with its protagonist, with all his quirks and challenges.

Mandoob is about this guy who is a loner,” Kalthami says. “Who is struggling with himself around change, and he's not equipped to deal with change. He’s challenged with the environment. He’s a disturbed man, but I can sympathise with him a lot.”

Kalthami says he and Algargawi went through as many as a dozen drafts until they felt ready to translate the script to film. When it came to finding the right person to embody Fahad on screen, the duo was cautious and took their time to decide on an actor. “We tried not to think of somebody so it wouldn’t affect the writing,” Kalthami says. “But by the third draft, it started calling for Mohamad Aldokhei.”

Aldokhei is a recognisable figure in Saudi entertainment. The actor, known for his roles in the Netflix originals AlKhallat+ and Six Windows in the Desert, not to mention his plethora of Telfaz11-produced comedy shorts, is renowned for his comedic flair, but Kalthami says he knew Aldokhei had more to offer.

“I’ve known him for 20 years. I've worked with him so much,” Kalthami says. “He's a comedian. He's so funny. He's appeared in so many humorous [roles]. But it was the time to actually play a different note with him, and I thought we can deliver something special, something different [with Mandoob].”

Aldokhei’s background in comedy translates well in Mandoob, particularly with the way the actor injects a healthy dose of levity to otherwise tense situations. His performance adds a dimension to the film that prevents it from becoming a monotonous drop towards chaos.

“There are comedians who can pull off drama in an amazing way. There’s darkness in comedy,” Kalthami says, adding that Aldokhei gracefully treads that line. “He was ready,” Kalthami says. “He wanted to do something else. He didn’t want to be boxed into these roles of comedy and entertainment. It was a great collaboration. He saves the film in some moments, like he would go dark and intense, but then he’d say something funny or do something quirky.”

An ultimate litmus test for Mandoob came during its Arab premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival. Though the film had previously screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, Kalthami says he was most eager to see how audiences at home would react to it.

“I thought Toronto was tough, but bringing it home, I was relaxed until five minutes before the show,” Kalthami says.

“My film is tense. It has very heavy subject matters. After the first five or 10 minutes, I became at ease. People were laughing, enjoying it and clapping. I saw that I was in my head too much and that it was time to relax. I wanted actually to show it first in Saudi, because I made this film for the local audience.

"But Toronto showed interest in this film and I thought why not. Now’s the time for it to come home and I’m excited to share this story. I think it's a different tone to cinema, but it's an important one. It's necessary to shed the light on these unfortunate characters in our societies.”

Updated: January 18, 2024, 6:31 AM