Saudi star Ibrahim Alkhairallah tells of celebrating Joy Awards win with John Cena

The creator of Sattar, the winner of Best Film, speaks exclusively to The National

Actor and WWE star John Cena joins Sattar writer, producer and star Ibrahim Alkhairallah (right) to celebrate the big win for the film. Photo: Riyadh Season
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Saudi filmmaker Ibrahim Alkhairallah couldn’t have scripted it better himself.

The man behind the smash-hit film Sattar was sitting in the audience of the star-studded 2024 Joy Awards, anxiously awaiting the final category of the night, Best Film, to be announced.

“We really weren’t sure we were going to win,” Alkhairallah tells The National. “There were several worthy contenders, so I was a bit worried, but then, to my total surprise, John Cena walked out on stage to present the award. In that moment, I said to myself, this is Sattar’s prize.”

The film, which premiered at the 2022 Red Sea International Film Festival, became a cultural phenomenon last year, opening bigger than Avatar 2 and then dominating the box office for the next four months.

By the end of its run, about one million tickets had been sold, and it became not only the highest-grossing Saudi film in history, but the third most popular film of all time in the kingdom, behind only Spider-Man: No Way Home and Top Gun: Maverick.

In retrospect, Sattar may feel tailor-made for the Saudi audience, but that’s because it was. Alkhairallah came up with the idea during the pandemic, trying to merge the sensibility of the blockbuster Egyptian comedy with the YouTube spirit he’d mastered with his collaborators at Telfaz11, the pioneering production company he co-founded.

It tells a story set in the fictional world of underground pro wrestling, inspired by Alkhairallah’s own fascination growing up with the sport, as well as its growing popularity in the kingdom, where WWE holds two large-scale premium live events each year.

Alkhairallah founded another production company to make the project, Shimaisi films, named after the street in Riyadh where he used to buy film and pro wrestling bootleg DVDs growing up, including those featuring one of his heroes, John Cena.

“When John Cena said the winner is Sattar, we literally jumped to the stage. I’m such a huge fan of him,” says Alkhairallah. “A part of me wanted to end my speech by saying ‘for the first time in history, someone can truly say to John Cena, ‘you can’t see me!’ but I resisted, not sure it was right for the moment.”

“Then, when we got backstage, I couldn’t contain myself. I went right up to John and said, ‘you can’t see me!’ and did the hand movement that he’s done for decades in WWE. He laughed so much!

“Then he got serious with me and he said, ‘you guys wrote the story of my life. You wrote the story of wrestlers.’ I said ‘we’re big fans, and a big part of why we wanted to tell a story in wrestling was because of you’.”

Cena then insisted that they go into the other room, pushing aside his bodyguards to make sure that the three of them, Alkhairallah, Cena and the film’s director Abdullah Al Arak, got a picture of the three of them doing Cena’s popular "you can’t see me" move together.

“Stand aside! I have an important picture to do with these gentlemen!” Cena said, before wishing Alkhairallah the best of luck and he left.

“He was very kind, by the way,” Alkhairallah adds.

Alkhairallah, who is currently in Dubai working on a yet-to-be announced project, also told The National that his win at the Joy Awards is one of the proudest of his career thus far.

“This really caps off a very long journey in a wonderful way. What an amazing night!”

Updated: January 21, 2024, 7:16 PM