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Saudi filmmaker delights with quirky, genre-bending offering

DHAHRAN: Mohammed Hammad takes you back to the exciting streets of yesteryear Jeddah for an engrossing 19 minutes with “Yallah, Yallah Beena!” now streaming on Netflix.

In the film, a fantastical world unravels when a kind cinephile, whose home is a shrine dedicated to cinema, tells the tale of a gang of pre-teens who were sent on a psychedelic mission to save humanity and escape a spell cast on them by a coven of witches.

You will experience a range of emotions watching “Yallah, Yallah Beenah!” Hammad’s most recent experimental genre mash-up.

In real life, Hammad has a charming swagger, is passionate and listens attentively.

He represents the quintessential millennial who dreamed of building his own universe as a child, and so he did. Sound and music have always played a crucial role in his creative process, so it is no surprise that he has built a 15-year career in the film and television production business — at MTV Arabia and as creative director of MDLBEAST, Saudi Arabia’s pioneering three-day international music festival.

The year 2022 marked the full development of his latest project, which was shown in Jeddah and then Dhahran. As part of the “Amakin” group exhibit last year, artists were asked to create work that wrestled with the simple yet profound question: “What does the notion of place mean to you?”

The initiative was driven by the non-profit 21,39 — named after the geographic coordinates of Jeddah — which has attempted to establish the city as the center of the Kingdom’s contemporary art scene.

In the same way, Hammad has tried to make a mark in Jeddah which he frequented as a child and where he now lives mostly — and where the story in this film unfolds.

When world-renowned expert in Islamic and contemporary Middle Eastern art Venetia Porter curated the “Amakin” exhibition, she selected Hammad’s film as part of the collection.

Later in 2022, it was shown at the Red Sea International Film Festival. This year, it was screened at the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival in the Netherlands and again at the Saudi Film Festival.

Now streaming on Netflix, a wider audience can now access and enjoy Hammad’s work, as a part of season two of the collection titled “New Saudi Voices.”

Nuha El-Tayeb, director of content acquisitions at Netflix MENA and Turkiye, said: “We’re very excited to amplify the voices of up-and-coming filmmakers in Saudi Arabia through this collection. There’s incredible talent in the Kingdom, and they have unique stories to tell.

“We hope that as people tune into the films, they learn more about these creators, and catch a glimpse of their passion, originality and creativity, as we have.”

Last year, the first “New Saudi Voices” collection was made available on the streaming platform.

At the time, El-Tayeb told Arab News: “There’s incredible talent in Saudi Arabia. The entertainment landscape is rapidly evolving … (the stories) transcend borders and allow viewers to experience the beauty and dynamism of Saudi culture. We believe great stories can come from anywhere and be loved by anyone.”

She added: “The second volume is not just a collection of short films, it is a celebration of untold stories and a testament to the creative prowess of the emerging filmmakers.”

A few of the films in the latest collection were shown at Ithra, otherwise known as the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, where filmmaking has been nurtured and encouraged for years.

Ithra’s resident movie buff, Majed Z. Samman, whose own films were also included in the latest anthology, praised Hammad’s offering: “I loved the cinematography … the style of a Japanese video game. It was a very cool, very well-made film.”

The film was produced by Nouhad Hachicho and Mohammed Jastaniah, with Hammad writing the screenplay.

With a cast that includes Jameel Ayyach and Elias Sultan, “Yallah, Yallah Beenah!” is part documentary, part fantasy but fully Hammad.

He noted that despite the fact that some of the allusions and devices — such as witches and young boys with guns — have been viewed as overused, he did not receive any sort of pushback regarding them.

“I think if we were like five years back, it was definitely an issue (then). Now, times have changed so fast,” he said.

Since the film was originally made for the Saudi Art Council’s 21,39 show, he had more freedom to explore broader themes on his mind — and he was even encouraged to do so.

“It made me think of playing with the duality of constants and changes — especially with all the rapidly changing things that are happening, so I started to look at the Jeddah that I remember as a kid and what still exists from it and what doesn’t,” Hammad told Arab News.

Hammad, 30, has spent much of life between the East and West, so he incorporated cultural references and elements from both in the storytelling.

The name of his film was inspired by a jingle from a fast-food chain, popular in the 1980s and 1990s. He tried to pick symbols which represented the Jeddah of his youth, and that included the iconic colorfully-lit ice-cream truck, which has a cameo in his picture.

While the symbols of innocence, the style and the things that used to be joyful and brought happiness have changed, one thing that Hammad believes will never change, is the joyful attitude of actor Ayyach.

Hammad reckons that even decades from now, Ayyach will be the exact same: “Jameel represents that constant. You can bet your life that Jameel will still be Jameel in another 20 or 30 years — the man will not change; he will still be this same exact person as he’s been for the past over 50-something years.”

Hammad refers to Ayyach as a sort of anchor or guide for everyone as fantastical, wild events swirl around. “No matter what happens in the film, you come back to him and he just reminds you things will be okay,” Hammad added.

In one scene, the “evil kid” goes on a rampage and kills those in sight. Hammad says that he has the blood turn black, which represents, among other things, the Kingdom moving away from “black gold” or oil.

Shot over three days, he received much support from several local Jeddawi brands. It was a very indie effort, he said.

Although it is a quintessentially Jeddah-centric visual collage, the narrative is universal and could be understood no matter where you are from or where you are going.

But the story does not end here.

“I’ve developed it (‘Yallah, Yallah Beenah!’) into a series which I’m writing now — it’s a spinoff,” Hammad revealed.

He is hopeful that the next iteration of the story will evolve and, perhaps, develop its own character.

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