Saudi Arabian-Palestinian actor Dina Shihabi, who appeared in Amazon series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” and Netflix’s “Altered Carbon,” has been attached to play the lead role of Asya in Saudi-U.S. production “Hajj to Disney.”
The project was one of the buzz titles at the CineGouna Platform event at the El Gouna Film Festival, where the film received a $10,000 grant from the Arab Radio & Television Network (ART).
“For us in terms of our overall partnerships and collaborations bringing Dina on board to play that role is probably the biggest step in the right direction that we’ve had,” said producer Chelsie Dias (“Manic Monday,” “Lovebird Lullaby”), who formerly developed emerging talent at The Weinstein Company. “Dina is Saudi Arabian and studied at Juilliard in the United States, and she has international appeal.”
On winning the development grant, Dias added: “We want to extend a huge thanks to ART for believing in the film, which will allow us to develop the project.”
The story centers on recently single Asya, an articulate yet opinionated Saudi woman from Mecca, insecure about approaching her forties while still childless and unattached. So, she flies to Florida in an attempt to rekindle her romance with a comedian who left the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in search of liberty and freedom.
“Hajj to Disney” was selected for the inaugural Red Sea Lodge Residency in partnership with TorinoFilmLab. It’s written and directed by upcoming Saudi filmmaker Maha Al-Saati, a university professor whose short films include “Hair: The Story of Grass,” which played at Slamdance last year and won Al-Saati the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. residency award. “From Hajj to Disney” has also been shortlisted for funding at the Malmo Arab Film Festival.
Originally envisioned as a drama, the film developed comedic overtures when it was one of a dozen projects selected for the inaugural Red Sea Film Lodge, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “These great instructors were pushing for the film to become more of a comedy,” said Al-Saati. “Then I thought that would be very therapeutic because I was making fun of my own pain.”
The narrative is semi-autobiographical, and one of the themes that the director, whose mother grew up in Mecca, wants to explore is how the Holy City has been commercialized in recent years, leading to it becoming compared in this aspect to Disneyland. “I teach Media Studies, and I showed a few articles to my students that describe Mecca as Disneyland for Muslims,” said Al-Saati. “I thought of the parallels between the two places after my visit to Florida in the summer of 2019, and all the failures associated with visiting Disney World, which led to me accumulating thoughts about capitalism, and the construction of [romantic] fairy tales.”
A verbal offer has been made by private partners to develop the project, and a streaming platform has voiced interest in coming on-board at the production stage. But for now, the production team are looking for more traditional development partners.
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