In 2015, the first Saudi co-directed animated feature length film, “Bilal: A New Breed of Hero,” premiered at the 12th Annual International Dubai Film Festival, and was then released in the Middle East and North Africa region, scoring box office success. This month, it is also playing commercially in theatres across the United States, in states such as Virginia, San Francisco, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, New York, and Iowa.
Khurram H. Alavi
The film tells the story of Bilal ibn Rabah, who was the first mu’azen, or prayer caller, during the time of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). The film’s co-director, Ayman Jamal, explained that the film comes at a time when Islam as a religion faces accusations of extremism, and Bilal aims to show the true face of Islam.
The film’s English voice cast includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (as the adult Bilal), Ian McShane, Michael Gross, China Anne McClain, Jacob Latimore, Thomas Ian Nicholas, and Fred Tatasciore. Qusai Kheder, known as one of Saudi Arabia’s first hip hop artists, gave voice to Bilal’s Arabic character while Ola Al-Faris, a TV presenter from Jordan, did the voiceover for the film’s two main female characters, Ghafira and Hamama.
As the film gets ready for its US debut, AMC Theatres shared a message on its website that reads: “A thousand years ago, Bilal, a bright-eyed boy, with a grand dream of becoming a great warrior is abducted with his sister and taken to a land far away from his home […] Inspired by true events, this is a story of a real hero, who earned his remembrance in time and history.”
The film’s co-director Ayman Jamal, wrote in Arabic on his twitter account: “With God’s grace, and for the first time, the film Bilal will be screened in American theatres on Feb. 2 […] It is the first Saudi produced and directed film to be screened commercially in theatres in America. Enjoyable viewing of the story of a great hero from our history … Bilal ibn Rabah!”
Co-directed by Jamal and Khurram H. Alavihas, “Bilal” won “The Best Inspiring Movie” on the Animation Day during Cannes Film Festival and was officially selected by Annecy International Animated Film Festival.
Within the Kingdom, there has been a growing number of artists and filmmakers, each nurturing Saudi Arabia’s arts and culture scene despite the various challenges they still face. Saudi Arabia’s first female animation film producer Dr. Basma Al-Sinari spoke recently to Saudi Gazette on the obstacles that still need to be addressed, as well as the world of possibilities the Saudi market offers.
Al-Sinari explained that although Saudi Arabia has recently become an attractive hub for international entertainment, there should be more focus on providing support for, and showcasing, talents within the Kingdom and abroad, saying, “Authorities must think about those films as cultural ambassadors of the country. It will be a return on cultural investment that will raise Saudi Arabia's profile in global cinema.”