From engineering student to actor, how this Saudi expat navigated the Arab film industry

Mohamed Ibrahim, who's upcoming short film is set to premiere at the Ithra Saudi Film Festival in its ninth edition, talks about the growing acceptance of Arabic actors on screen


Somya Mehta

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Published: Wed 10 Apr 2024, 5:12 PM

Mohamed Ibrahim had harboured a passion for the performing arts from a tender age. Raised in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, his childhood was filled with moments of admiration as he watched television, particularly captivated by the glamour of Bollywood and the charm of Hollywood. Though his family had envisioned him pursuing a conventional career path, Mohamed's heart yearned for the spotlight.

“Almost abruptly, my focus shifted from engineering, which was what I was studying. I realised acting was my true passion,” says the Saudi actor. “That's when I began appearing in commercials, which served as my introduction to various production companies, not only in Dubai but also in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Building connections with directors and production houses eventually led me to my debut in a drama series.”

From there, he continued to progress, venturing into various other projects as he moved forward in his acting career. As a teenager, Mohamed found solace in watching commercials, admiring the actors who graced the screens. “As kids, we used to spend a lot of time glued to the TV. I had a thing for the ads that popped up between TV programmes, series, or movies. I'd watch them and think, ‘Wow, I want to be like that person.’”

Though Mohamed’s journey began with commercials, it wasn't without its challenges. He found himself attending numerous commercial shoots and participating in endless auditions. “I've been through over 200 auditions in my career,” he says, recalling the beginnings of his journey. “There’s no direct leap into acting. There's a process; you have to first step in front of the camera to learn how to position yourself; how to move gracefully; and how to convey emotions through your facial expressions.”

Dealing with rejections is a reality all artistes must make peace with early on in their careers, he mentions. “It’s definitely tough to deal with rejection. It can really shake your confidence and make you doubt yourself. But I’ve always had some key figures in my life who've kept me going. Even the most famous actors have faced rejection early in their careers, so we can’t let it stop us.”

This process of multiple auditions, however, turned out to be crucial in establishing connections and building contacts within the industry. “Ultimately, it's all about networking and knowing the right people,” he adds. “When they recognise your talent, experience, and reliability—always following orders, being punctual, and going the extra mile—it makes a significant difference,” says Mohamed, whose breakthrough role happened through a drama series titled Rashash, where he played the role of a police officer.

The series was primarily in Arabic but was also subtitled in numerous languages, reaching a wide audience through platforms like Shahid, akin to Netflix for Arabic content. “While I wasn't the lead character, nor was it my first project, Rashash held immense significance in my career. It marked a pivotal moment, propelling me into the realm of serious acting. Prior to this, I had taken on numerous minor roles, often limited to just a scene or two, which didn't feel particularly impactful,” says the actor who’s also appeared in the Bollywood spy franchise Tiger Zinda Hai, sharing screen space with popular Indian actor Salman Khan.

Living in Dubai has provided the actor with countless such opportunities, he adds. "There are so many production companies here, and it's very easy to get shooting locations in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The government helps a lot by providing locations, and they truly welcome people from all around the world to come and shoot here,” says Mohamed.

“I've also had the opportunity to see Shah Rukh Khan, Tom Cruise and many other famous actors visiting this place. The hospitality that the country shows towards people from all around the world is remarkable. They have a genuine passion for movies and take pride in producing major projects within their countries. This is evident in the production of Mission Impossible and Vanguard, the Jackie-Chan starrer, in which I had a small role," he adds.

However, the actor believes that there is a lot more work to be done to elevate Arabic storytelling and actors to the mainstream through original, homegrown productions. When asked about how to foster a stronger film community, he responds, “It actually requires time and trust, mainly from the audience.” If the movie’s revenue is not very successful, the producers don’t feel encouraged to back big projects, says Mohamed. “Most Arab people, or those from the Middle East, tend not to favour our local films. I suppose it's mostly because we prefer to see projects from abroad, such as Hollywood, Bollywood, or Egypt.”

The actor mentions there were no significant Arab movie productions when he started out about 10 years ago, “It was primarily focused on drama series. They didn’t produce many movies, except in Egypt. Now, Saudi Arabia has begun to do so. As more people go to the theatres, they're becoming increasingly open to watching Arab actors on screen. These actors bring laughter and enjoyment to audiences. So, it's a matter of time, and God willing, we'll witness positive change soon.”

For his upcoming short film, the actor is collaborating with director Hassan Daoud, potentially to be adapted into a drama series in the future. The shooting takes place both in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, unfolding a Saudi narrative. “I am very excited to be working with Mr Hassan, his work is widely known in Syria as well as the wider Middle East region. He's ventured into various projects, including Saudi drama series and even a Japanese drama series.”

As for its debut, it's set to premiere at the Ithra Saudi Film Festival in its ninth edition, a significant event in Saudi Arabia's cinematic calendar. With numerous competitive categories, including short films, this festival provides a vital platform for emerging talents and projects seeking recognition. The film’s reception at the festival will be critical to its future, says Mohamed. “Though I can’t reveal much about the project, the film festival is a significant opportunity for our project as well as various other films looking to showcase themselves and gain recognition. If our film succeeds, it could potentially be adapted into a drama series. We’re hoping for the best.”

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