Free-verse stanzas challenged traditional rhymes and meters, cloaking a larger scuffle between liberal values and more conservative perspectives. Poetry was where the future of Saudi Arabia would be defined — at least as far as the poets were concerned.
These poetic jousts often took a “weird and absurd dimension”, says director Mohamed Al Salman, eventually serving as the inspiration for his film Raven Song.
The film, which made its premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival, is Saudi Arabia’s contender for Best International Feature at the 2023 Academy Awards. Starring Asem Alawad in the main role, it also features Abdullah Aljafal, Ibraheem Alkhairallah and Kateryna Tkachenko and is produced by Ahmed Moussa and Saudi creative media studio Telfaz11.
The “weird and absurd” stimulus of Raven Song is evident from the onset, as the film plunges into the surreal within its first few minutes — when the main character, Nasser, steps out of his home and his father’s stifling conservatism to a rainfall ... of brains. The spongy organs fall from the sky, splattering and bouncing along the Riyadh alley, setting an uncanny scene that only grows stranger as the story progresses.
The film is rooted in the perspective of Nasser, a young and somewhat adrift man who suffers from a brain tumour. His medical condition is the springboard for the film’s surrealism and slippery plot, as those around him, most notably his father, accuse him of being a "tess", meaning goat in Arabic — a term that is used as an accusation of stupidity and aimlessness.
“I wanted to explore different aspects of the early 2000s in Saudi Arabia,” Al Salman says. “But I wanted to do it through a simple and naive character. Someone who reflects upon the young people of the era, who try very hard to fit in a bipolar society.”
Expelled from university, Nasser finds work as a clerk at The Dove Hotel. The job is a dreary and somewhat dull one as Nasser spends his days playing Snake on a brick Nokia phone, that is, until a visit from an enigmatic woman in a white abaya who mysteriously asks to see room 227, before disappearing again.
Enamoured, Nasser is eager to meet the woman again and asks his friend Abu Sagr, who advises him to become a poet and adopt the moniker Nasser Al Ghurab. Through an absurd turn of events, Abu Sagr manages to have Nasser featured in a Saudi newspaper, inadvertently pitting him in the centre of a poetic battle between classicist and modernist writers. Meanwhile, Nasser admits Abu Yasser, an old theatre aficionado, into room 227, deepening its mystery.
Al Salman says he spent considerable time looking for the right person to play Nasser, especially as every scene in the film pivots around him.
“I was scared we wouldn’t find the right actor,” he says. “The film is very dependent on the performance of its main character. He doesn’t speak a lot but so much depends on his reactions. I was lucky to find [Alawad]. He hadn’t had a major role before but he was perfect for the role. From the moment he came to audition, we knew it had to be him.”
The film is replete with an awkwardness and dry comedy that many in Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC region will find relatable. While Al Salman lists the likes of Darren Aronofsky as his inspiration, he says he had set out to do a film that would exclusively speak to audiences in the region. Though it is Saudi Arabia's official entry for next year’s Oscars, he says he is more concerned with the effect it has on regional viewers.
“I am one of those who think if you want to make it internationally, you should make it first here,” the director says. “I don't want to make films specific for the western audience. I don't even want to consider western appeal. I want to make films that, when I watch [them], I feel like I did justice to the Saudi dynamic.”
Scroll through images from the Red Sea International Film Festival below