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THERE IS plenty to recommend AlUla. Complementing the neighbouring UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra, with its 111 Nabatean tombs — a treat to explore, undisturbed, compared to the overrun capital of this ancient civilisation in Petra — is a community of new designer resorts, hipster restaurants, boutiques and museums, alongside the main attraction of this famous burial site, the desert and the starlit scenery. For flmmakers, in addition to the proactive new flm commission, a state-ofthe-art studio complex is opening this year.


Although flying is possible via a number of nearby airports, the 900-kilometre road trip from Tel Aviv to AlUla — allowing one to feel like Lawrence of Arabia with wheels — involved crossing the starlit Negev desert in Israel to reach the Yitzhak Rabin Crossing into Jordan at Eilat, the southern Israel beach town, arriving with a better understanding of where you have landed. The Durra Border Crossing into Saudi Arabia is a 36km drive inside Jordan along the Red Sea. The seven-hour drive through the untouched Saudi desert, from the Durra Crossing to

AlUla, conducted by a belly-dancing Saudi chaufeur, included a distant glimpse of the new city of Neom which has begun hosting flmmakers.

Capitalising on this history and the outstandingly beautiful scenery is the Film AlUla commission, which has hosted more than 694 production-days since opening in 2020.

In 2022, Film AlUla facilitated 153 projects, resulting in 489 days of flming supporting 1,678 crew members.

International films to have used the backdrop of this desert include Kandahar by Ric Roman Waugh. The Afghan war drama was the frst major Hollywood feature to shoot almost entirely in AlUla. Other international projects include the Iraq war story Cherry, starring Tom Holland and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Some 26 documentaries have also been completed.

Norah is the frst Saudi feature flm to be shot here and it uses AlUla as AlUla. The debut feature from homegrown directorwriter Tawfk Alzaidi includes an all-Saudi cast and over 60% Saudi crew. The flm is budgeted at around $2m.

Set in 1990s Saudi Arabia, when conservative rule meant that art and painting were banned, Norah tells the story of an artist, played by Yaqoub Alfarhan, who has abandoned painting and decided to become a village schoolteacher . Local resident Norah (Maria Bahrawi) is an illiterate orphan facing an arranged marriage. She begins to record her thoughts and memories into a cassette recorder.

In the 50-degree heat last June, the crew was making the most of the day in a desert expanse an hour’s drive from Downtown AlUla in the abandoned village of Da’ a.

An open brick building with several air conditioning machines and shabby rooms for makeup, costumes and a canteen made up the bulk of the facilities. Lorries and tents were dotted outside its walls where crew and actors filmed in the scorching weather.

Norah is produced by American producer Paul Miller, the former Doha Film Institute head of fnance, along with Jordan’s Sharif Majali. Saudi production companies Black Sugar Pictures and Nebras Films co-produced the flm.

On the day of the set visit, Miller admitted this had been the the hardest week. “It's all exposed day scenes. Next week we move to night scenes and then back into town,” he says.

When Alzaidi created the project fve years ago, he said there was no Saudi industry, let alone location support. He mostly financed the film with fund- ing from the Saudi Film Commission’s Daw Film Competition, which was launched in 2019 to help local films. The Red Sea Fund recently gave the film a post-production award.

“I chose AlUla as a location to shoot Norah from the beginning, because I felt that the story resembles AlUla, a sensational landscape that I know very well with its mountains and geographical scenery. It is a living art gallery that impersonates the background of the story,” Alzaidi says. “The establishment of Film AlUla made it possible to shoot and produce Norah here and they supported the flm logistically. It was my first choice of location since I wrote the story.”

One scene was shot in Riyadh, but 99% of the film was shot in AlUla. “The AlUla region is a place where you can fnd diverse landscapes and locations. I found a real village built in the 1980s, start of the 1990s, when the story takes place,” Alzaidi says. “When I frst visited the village and entered the houses, I felt the soul of the story. All that I had to do was to bring the characters there and start shooting. It felt like I was already inside the universe of the flm story.”

The shoot took place over 28 days, “but I was there from the beginning of flm prep with the crew. We did the pre-production stage in AlUla as we worked on the interior production design of the houses and the costumes. Also, we spent time scouting as we shot in many diferent locations in AlUla,” he added.

The flm features a full Saudi cast and extras who live in AlUla. The equipment was found in Saudi Arabia and the wider region.

Film AlUla helped with logistic support, including accommodation, fights, and transportation. The Norah team was the frst crew to stay in the new Film Residence which is expanding to house 300 people.

“The accommodation was practical with a positive atmosphere. The flm crew became like a family who stayed in the same residence where lots of discussions were held following days on set; this was very beneficial for the film production. This support contributed greatly to the flm so, I consider Film AlUla as a big part of its making,” Alzaidi says.

“I consider myself lucky that I got to shoot in AlUla. It was a great experience — yes there were challenges as it was my debut, but I can say that the stunning landscapes and mountains surrounding me were able to absorb any negative energy,” he says.

“There were members of the flm crew from outside Saudi Arabia and some Saudis and locals. At this point, while the Saudi flm industry is evolving, we need to bring together Saudi talent with the experts and those who have previous experience in the flm industry,” he adds.

Some crew were from Jordan, and had previously gained experience on international shoots including Star Wars: The Force Awakens

“I remember one touching story, on one of the shooting days, there was a 65-year-old woman who had dreamt of acting since she was a child and her dream had fnally come true as she was in front of the camera acting in Norah and her performance was extraordinary,” Alzaidi says.

And there were challenges during the filming. “This is normal, and happens even in Hollywood, because the flm industry is not an easy industry,” he says. “In Saudi Arabia, the true awareness of what is a cinematic flm — and what its elements and criteria are — would really contribute to the production of Saudi flm stories that can travel around the world.”

Alzaidi adds: “International productions which have shot in AlUla have contributed to raising awareness.”

Since a 35-year ban on cinema was lifted in 2017, the industry has been moving fast in Saudi Arabia. Last year, the Saudi Film Commission launched a 40%-plus cash rebate incentive programme for local and international TV-and-flm productions. “Film AlUla can also discuss an uplift on the cash incentive and additional incentives,” executive director of Film AlUla, Charlene Deleon-Jones, says.

Construction is under way of a new studio complex, with the completion of a 30,000 sq m frst phase targeted for the fourth quarter of 2023. Features include two studios with soundstages, support buildings, workshops, a 6,500 sq m backlot and pristine natural locations. The complex is close to 12 sq km of dedicated outdoor shooting locations that showcase the beauty and heritage of AlUla.

The moves are part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project to move away from reliance on oil and diversify economically and culturally. It includes a plan to produce and shoot 100 films in Saudi Arabia by 2030, consisting of both local and international productions.

Deleon-Jones adds: “The flm industry in Saudi Arabia is moving at an incredible pace and the country’s cinema industry is now the fastest-growing in the Middle East. Film AlUla’s strategy is in line with Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 roadmap to support the development and growth of the national flm, television, and media industry.”

In addition, the government’s Cultural Development Fund is also investing

$234m over three years through its new Film Sector Financing Programme “which aims to boost the country’s film infrastructure and support production with grants, loans and loan guarantees”. In 2022 10 Saudi flms were produced, with the hope of that rising to 50-80 annually by 2030, Deleon-Jones says. “Saudi companies, including Muvi Studios, MBC, VOX and CineWaves, are making investment in original production to capitalise on the appetite for local content that will attract audiences to theatres in the region and drive the change in Saudi production.”

Film AlUla also ofers a range of support incentives including a regulatory system to ensure production and crew have all the necessary permits in place, help with location scouting and expert knowledge of flming in AlUla and the rest of Saudi Arabia.

“Film AlUla can also assist with sourcing a professional local and regional supply chain of experienced crew, talent, production companies, and rental equipment," she says.