Saudi Director Tawfik Alzaidi Talks ‘Mad Max 2’ Influence As He Arrives In Cannes With Ground-Breaking Film ‘Norah’

Self-taught Saudi director Tawfik Alzaidi posted a Tweet in 2011 predicting that cinemas would re-open in his country in 2018 after a 35-year ban.

It got zero traction.

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“I was sitting in Starbucks, feeling frustrated and fired it off,” he recounts. “No-one replied or retweeted it.”

In late 2017, he would log on to discover the post had gone viral with people hailing him as a fortune teller, following the Saudi government’s announcement of the lifting of the cinema ban as part of a wider opening-up of the country under its 2030 plan aimed at moving the economy away from a reliance on oil.

Seven years later, Alzaidi is making history as his debut feature Norah world premieres in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard as the first Saudi movie to make it into Official Selection across its 77 editions.

Set in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, when all artistic expression was banned, Norah follows rookie teacher and clandestine artist Nader, who is sent to a remote village in the region of AlUla where he connects with a spirited young woman, whose intriguing backstory is slowly unveiled.

Alzaidi’s arrival in Cannes is a quite feat given that the director, who is in early 40s, was born as the cinema ban came into force in 1983 and only saw his first film on a big screen in his early 20s during a trip to the UAE.

The director, who hails from the Western city of Medina, notes that Saudi Arabia’s era of conservatism was sparked by the November 1979 siege of its Grand Mosque in Mecca by anti-monarchist militants, which result in the ruling royal family ceding more ground to Islamic scholars known as the Ulama.

“If you look closely in the movie, the number plate of the teacher’s car is 15.11.1979… that’s when art stopped,” he says.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s and early 90s, Alzaidi’s first taste of cinema was through videotapes.

“The movie I watched was Mad Max 2. I put this in the movie. When Norah opens her magazine there is Mad Max,” says Alzaidi

“It was the only movie I had for one, two years. I watched it again and again and again,” he explains. “I was like nine, or ten years old. I thought it was real and that he had just taken the camera and filmed people somewhere.”

Some 30 years later, the stars have aligned so that Alzaidi’s Norah is world premiering in the same Official Selection as George Miller’s Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, which screened Out of Competition last week.


Alzaidi got his first video camera at 12-years-old and started making short films with family and friends.

“I’d shoot soccer matches and would then add music. I didn’t realize that what I was doing was filmmaking. I didn’t know that the profession of filmmaking existed until I read it in a magazine,” he says.

The director says his family and friends could not understand his obsession with film, with some suggesting he was wasting his time given that cinemas were shut with no sign of opening soon.

“I didn’t care… I had cinema inside me. When you’re in love with something you can’t just abandon it and do something else,” he says.

In his 20s, Alzaidi moved to Riyadh and got work with a Saudi news channel as a compromise job, which at least kept him shooting and editing.

“Sometimes you can’t do exactly what you want to do but you do something similar. I learned a lot, because with news and documentaries you go to a location, put the camera down and shoot. This prepared me for shooting on location,” he says.

He finally started seeing films on the big screen in his early 20s when he was invited to the now defunct Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Dubai International Film Festival with short films and projects in the 2010s.

“I’d go to screenings with a note pad and take notes on all the elements… the color, the framing,” he recalls.

Alzaidi wrote the screenplay for Norah on 2015 to explore his own feelings towards art at a time when it continued to be suppressed.

“It’s about people who inspire art and people who make art. Art is the best way to continue being human. Art is the only thing that speaks directly to us… it feeds the mind in a healthy way,” he says.

“This story is not about me, but I wanted to write about somebody who is committed to art, like Nader, even if nobody believes in him. When he goes to the village, he finds someone who sparks his creativity in Norah, who brings out the art and passion in him. At this time, I didn’t have a Norah,” he continues.

“In Arabic, Norah means light. In the first scene of the movie, you see her bringing in light. There’s a saying, ‘don’t play with fire’. There are two sources of light: fire and the sun. The first time, she goes to Nader’s home, it’s very dark… You see him burning his sketches. The second time, she goes there, it’s a bit lighter. At the same time as Norah needs something, so does Nader.”

Norah is played by newcomer Maria Bahrawi opposite rising actor Yaqoub Alfarhan, who was broke out in 2021 Saudi crime thriller Rashash and has been a close friend of Alkaidi for 15 years. Veteran celebrity actor Abdullah Alsadhan also has a supporting role.

The film made its national premiere in Saudi Arabia at the Red Sea International Film Festival last December where it won the Film AlUla Award for best Saudi feature film.

A bigger prize, perhaps, was the praise of Baz Luhrmann who was the jury president. He watched the film twice he loved it so much and compared its spirit to that of his first film Strictly Ballroom, which was also set in a small town.

“He told me on stage, ‘you made a great movie’ and took a selfie with Maria,” says Alzaidi

Ahead of the film’s world premiere on Thursday, Alzaidi says he happy the film is screening to an international audience but reveals he is already thinking about his next film.

“I’ll be thinking about how and what I can do better with my next one” says the director.

Under a four-picture deal with Riyadh-based Red Palm Pictures, Alzaidi is currently developing two pictures: Arabic language revenge drama Thuraya about women living in the desert one hundred years ago, and an English-language project, which is under wraps. Both will shoot in Saudi Arabia.

Thuraya is about three women in the desert and we’re already working on the script,” he says.

On what the Cannes screening for Norah means for the wider Saudi cinema scene, Alzaidi says: “I’m proud but I would be proud even it wasn’t my film. It’s time for us to tell our stories to an international audience.”

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