On Her Love of Film & Jeddah: 7 questions with Saudi filmmaker and actress Fatima AlBanawi

On Her Love of Film & Jeddah: 7 questions with Saudi filmmaker and actress Fatima AlBanawi

Actress, director, writer, theatre founder, author – this Jeddah-born star is showing no signs of slowing, and we get the inside track on her latest projects, plus the places she loves most in her homeland
13 March 24
Fatima Al Banawi Image source: Ashraf Faden

Fatima AlBanawi's life and career already spans so many groundbreaking moments.

Most of us will have initially come across her in Saudi’s first ever romantic comedy, the 2016 Barakah Meets Barakah, which she both starred in and directed, and which was the country’s first feature film to premiere at Berlin International Film Festival – and only the second to be submitted to the Oscars. Then there’s her performance in last year’s comedy thriller Alhamour H.A., Saudi’s seventh entry to the same awards, plus in Paranormal, the first Egyptian original series on Netflix.

Away from film, as well as studying counselling psychology at Jeddah’s Effat University, theological studies at Harvard, and advanced oil painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, AlBanawi founded the Theatre of the Oppressed Chapter in Jeddah.

She also created The Other Story project in the same city, a pool of nearly 5,000 life stories to potentially turn into productions, such as her own short A Blink of an Eye, and her resulting book. Her evident skill at collecting, curating, and writing Saudi stories then led to her being named a “next generation leader” by Time magazine in 2018.

We caught up with her to find out what’s next on her agenda, and where in Saudi she likes to do during periods of downtime.

Film & the Arts

Which boundaries would you like to see broken down next in the Saudi film world?

The Saudi film industry has undergone significant changes in recent years, starting from the lifting of the ban on cinema, all the way to the ripples and waves local filmmakers are making with their creative, daring, and dreamy spirits. What I am enjoying the most is witnessing and partaking in the increase in the number of Saudi films produced with high standards to grab the attention of local, regional, and international viewers alike.

What I would change is a global assumption about female filmmakers: that they are attached and limited to women’s stories that appeal to female audiences only. A female filmmaker adds her touch to any story told and tackles it the way she wants or sees fit. And with regards to female representation in cinema, I believe women in Saudi will surpass – in 10 years – what women have wanted to achieve in the US or in neighbouring Egypt in the past hundred years.

Why has Alhamour H.A. been so successful, in your opinion? What makes it different?

It is local! It is nostalgic! It is familiar! If I haven’t bored you with my famous line yet, here goes nothing: you must go local to go global. You must go personal to go universal. Something worth mentioning behind the film’s astounding success is that it tackles the real story of one of the biggest con artists in the history of the country in a dramatic yet comedic approach. Also, I think the production support it received allowed and enabled the creative minds to dream and reach the skies. I am still impressed by the imagery, the music, the production quality, and the directorial ingenuity of Abdulelah Alqurashi.

The film has been likened to the Wolf of Wall Street by reviewers. Did you see any parallels between your character, Jihan, and Margot Robbie's Naomi? Who or what else did you draw inspiration from?

As I first read the script of AlHamour, I found it fresh, well-crafted, and genuine. The beauty of it was that it made me think of my teenage years and the girls of Jeddah who filled the malls, streets, and beach resorts with their fully fledged outgoing and witty characters. This experience served as a major source of inspiration for me.

I was completely enthralled by the intricate world of my character Jihan, to the extent that I told the director: “Jihan doesn’t like it when people call her by her name, she’s Jiji!” And guess what? To this day, some people still don’t know what Jiji’s name really is.

There was no doubt that AlHamour H.A.’s screenplay would win hearts, including my very own, as the story, dialogues, locations, and beats are all deeply rooted in the fabrics of our society.

What can you tell us about Basma, the feature film you are working on?

I entered the world of cinema as an actress because I wanted an entry point into it after years of working in theatre. But now that I am in, I want to create what I initially came here to create – stories. I have always dreamt of telling stories using cinema or theatre as a medium, and yes, even if that would have me juggling three demanding roles at once, and even if that were to be on my directorial debut!

Basma to me is the perfect match between two worlds. It is the meeting point of my academic background in psychology and my obsession with media and the arts; a family drama that follows a woman returning home after completing her studies abroad and being met with a series of unexpected hard truths about the closest people to her. The film – announced at the 78th Venice International Film Festival – was very well received throughout its development cycle, earning funding offers from different entities, including the Red Sea Fund. It is, however, a Netflix Original today, streaming sometime in 2024.


Where is your favourite place to spend time in Saudi and why?

My favourite place is definitely Jeddah, my home city, and specifically, my studio. It’s a safe space for me, where I am enabled along with other creatives to delve into the depths of our imaginations, to explore uncharted territories in our writings, and to make up characters and arcs driven by our real lives, while also going to places we have never been to before. I will forever feel grateful for such a place, where I have the opportunity to pass on my knowledge and experience, all the while learning from burgeoning creators who challenge me and grow alongside me.

Where do you always tell people who are new to Saudi to go and visit, and why?

Aside from what Google would tell you to visit, I would advise you not to miss out on having a meal with a Saudi family in their home. Also, get yourself in the Red Sea waters and send a prayer my way from over there. Actually, I believe I have lists I saved that function as tour guides for people coming into my city for the first time; maybe I should share them with viakonnect.com. I like these locally developed, personalised travel guides.

Describe your best all-time travel memory.

I’ll certainly say my last trip to the Maldives when I went diving with stingrays in the ocean. They swam and swayed around us, spreading their gigantic magical wings like spaceships, and teased us by coming very close then departing quickly out of sight.

A memory I lived that I wish to never forget.