A new comedy movie about young men in Saudi Arabia is bringing laughs to the region and beyond since it premiered earlier this month on Netflix.
“Shams Alma’arif” – or The Book of Sun – is set in Saudi Arabia in 2010, a time when young Saudi Arabians first embraced YouTube and other online platforms as the Kingdom began to undergo transformative reforms.
The film tells the story of high school senior Hussam’s journey in pursuit of his passion for filmmaking.
Saudi Arabian actor and film buff Baraa Alem, in his first debut on a feature film, plays the main character Hussam.
Hussam sets out to produce a zero-budget horror movie with the help of his best friend Ma’an, their “frenemy” Ibrahim, and their teacher Orabi. The group faces challenges pursuing their passion while appealing to online viewers and adhering to societal norms.
Written and directed by Faris Godus and produced by his brother Sohayb, the film draws on their own experiences as young Saudi Arabian filmmakers.
Named after the 13th century book by Algerian scholar Ahmed al-Buni, Shams Alma’arif was originally set to premiere at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Festival in March, but the coronavirus pandemic put its release on pause.
It later premiered in movie theaters across the Kingdom on July 30, before making its global debut on Netflix on October 1.
Bringing ‘real’ characters to life
Though the film is a fictional comedy, Alem told Al Arabiya English that the characters are accurate representations of real citizens in the Kingdom.
“I always tell my friends here in Jeddah or anywhere in Saudi Arabia that you can find Hussam in your school, and you can find Hima and Ma’an, those characters, existing in our real life,” the actor said in an interview.
People from around the world will also be able to relate to the characters – even if the story is one about young Saudi Arabian men - because it was structured similarly to other Hollywood coming-of-age films, according to Alem.
“Some of my friends from Egypt, and Iraq, and Kuwait, they could relate [to Shams Alma’arif]. After all, Faris Godus wrote a Saudi story but he wrote it in a very ‘Hollywoodian’ structure in the movie. So whoever watched the movie and could relate, they could see the American structure of the film,” he said.
An opportunity to build a local film industry
Saudi Arabian movies that came before Shams Alma’arif helped set the stage for a rising industry in the country, the 26-year-old actor told Al Arabiya English.
While some Saudi-made movies such as “Wadjda” and “Barakah Meets Barakah” have been released in recent years, Alem said that the Kingdom is in need of more commercial films that can reach a wider audience.
The enthusiastic reception of Shams Alma’arif could also help develop the growing film industry in the Kingdom, according to the actor.
“If Shams Alma’arif did something good to the industry it proved that we can sell tickets after all. We can be in theaters and prove to investors that you could put your money into this form of storytelling, and entertain people and get paid back for it. And I hope that will be the case. I hope that after Shams Alma’arif we see a lot of commercial films.”
Before Shams Alma’arif, the 26-year-old actor was quickly garnering social media popularity on his YouTube page “Filmmer.”
With more than 280,000 subscribers, Alem uses his background in media and his experience as a film buff to review movies, give recommendations, and provide insights on cinematography and filmmaking in Arabic.
While dressing up as the characters of the film he’s reviewing and mimicking their accents, Alem has been able to share his passion of cinema with Saudi Arabians across the country in a lighthearted way.
It was his channel, the actor said, that initially caught the eye of Shams Alma’arif’s director Godus and brought him the role of lead actor in the film.
The film is currently available worldwide on Netflix.