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MBC’s Ali Jaafar Talks “Statement” KSA Pics ‘Desert Warrior’ & ‘Kandahar’

With the Red Sea Film Festival well underway, global execs have descended in Jeddah to suss out the potential of the Saudi Arabian market and one key figure at the coalface of these conversations is MBC Studios’ Senior Manager of Content, Ali Jaafar. 

The exec, who heads up the feature film division of the company, has been involved in bringing the $100M+ Anthony Mackie and Aiysha Hart starrer Desert Warrior as well as the Gerard Butler-led actioner Kandahar to shoot in KSA. 

Jafaar came into Deadline’s Red Sea Studio to talk about the ambition and kinds of stories the Arabic world is capable of and noted that these films show that “anything can be achieved when it’s backed up by resources and backed up by will.”

“The fact that we’re able to make a film of the scale of Desert Warrior, during Covid, the very first of its kind in a country that was still developing its infrastructure and the fact that we’re able to make attract a film like Kandahar with a world class producer like Basil [Iwanyk], a great filmmaker like Ric [Roman Waugh] and a star like Gerry [Butler] and we were able to bring that to Saudi and shoot here 100%, it’s encouraging,” said Jafaar. “What we need to do is build on that though.”

Jafaar talked about these first time experiences of shooting these epic films, lessons that were learned and how he and his team are striving to find a way to “elevate the quality of cinema from this part of the world.” 

Notably, the exec is looking forward to what he says is “next big movie to gear up to,” HWJN, an adaptation of Ibraheem Abbas’ best-selling YA novel, which was a literary phenomenon in Saudi Arabia in 2013 after its pioneering combination of Western sci-fi tropes and Arabic culture and folklore was a hit with young readers. 

The contemporary story, he says, “is unique to the Arab world and it also does it in a context that is relatable to young people across the world.” 

“If we can find a way to make elevated, intelligent and entertaining movies from this part of the world that can hopefully make audiences and reach audiences theatrically or on SVOD but also reach audiences outside [of the region], I think that’s the jackpot for us.”

Jafaar is coming off the back of producing TIFF opening night film The Swimmers, which he produced with Working Title’s Eric Fellner and received rave reviews. The Sally El Hosaini-directed title, which hit the number one spot in Netflix’s global top 10 chart last week, follows the harrowing journey of two young sisters from war-torn Syria to the 2016 Rio Olympics.  

“The most important thing is can we elevate the quality of cinema from this part of the world, can we give opportunities and a platform to some of the emerging voices from the region and can we also introduce talent from this region to audiences internationally and that’s both writers and filmmakers and actors and actresses because there is a wealth of talent and they haven’t necessarily always had the platform that they deserve and so it’s an exciting moment to be a part of the process.”

Check out the video above.

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