Saudi Arabian filmmaker and actress Ahd Kamel has a meaty role in the new BBC-Netflix series Collateral. A peek into her short but wondrous journey
What do we think of when we think about Arab cinema? This relatively small-but-multifaceted industry is telling some of the most compelling stories about a region that, to the world at large, remains intriguing and alluring in equal measure. In the past few years, Arab cinema has been slowly and steadily taking giant leaps to leave an impact internationally. Look, for instance, at Haifaa al-Mansour's Wadjda (2012), a heartwarming tale of a young girl taking part in a Holy Koran recitation competition to gather funds to buy her a green bicycle she's been dreaming of owning (the film earned al-Mansour a British Academy Film Awards nomination). Or Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar's Theeb (2014), a coming-of-age tale of a young boy accompanying a British officer to a secret spot in the desert during World War I (it was one of the contenders in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars). At the heart of this cultural phenomenon are voices that are challenging, and even thwarting Western stereotypes, while carefully finding their feet in the globalised world. Ahd Kamel is one such voice.
As an actress, Ahd starred in Wadjda, the first feature film to be shot completely in Saudi Arabia. She is also a filmmaker, who has directed several short films that have won prestigious awards such as the Golden Aleph at the Beirut International Film Festival in 2013. However, it's the new hat that she is all set to wear that could just catapult her into international stardom: Ahd has recently shot for a new BBC-Netflix show, Collateral, alongside Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan, that will air next February.
Early reports of her inclusion in the cast have raised the stakes for Ahd Kamel, with leading fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue slotting her into a "new wave of Saudi women making great strides in their respective fields". The excitement is palpable in Ahd's voice as she speaks to us from her London residence ahead of this year's Dubai International Film Festival, where she is a member of the jury that pronounces the verdict on the best short film. "When I went for the audition, they actually wanted to see me for a smaller part. But then a week later, they called up to say, 'We're sorry, but would you mind coming in for a bigger role?'"
The polite apology may just go a long way in changing the course of Ahd's career, as she has been roped in to play an Arab woman, Fatma, in the thriller created by Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Hare. Depiction of Arab characters in mainstream Western shows/films often calls for intellectual scrutiny as one could get trapped into the stereotypes. Ahd chooses to remain tightlipped about the role, but gives an evidence to make a case for Collateral and why it may not fall prey to any generalisations. "When I walked in, the casting director was walking out and he told me, 'Just wanted to let you know that David is in the room and he's a little self-conscious about meeting you.' I was shocked. But later, I discovered that the reason he was conscious was because he was writing a character he had no experience dealing with. A multidimensional Arab character, not just a refugee," she says.
No wonder then, Ahd looks back at her time on the sets of Collateral with fondness. It's not a simplistic gushing about a big show that is giving her a big break. The adulation comes from a place of respect. "The great thing about working in London is that they really love actors in this country; there is a lot of respect for the craft. Let me cite you an example. Now, Carey's (Mulligan) character in the show is pregnant, and for the longest time, I thought that the belly she had was a fake one. It was only when we were halfway through that she told me, 'No, I am really pregnant.' I kept wondering how she was working those crazy hours. The calibre and commitment on the sets were very high."
Listening to Ahd speak so enthusiastically about her show, one can't help but wonder when and how this passion took root, given that local cinema in Saudi Arabia hadn't come into its own until very recently. "I was born and raised in Saudi and later moved to New York," she tells us, adding that it wasn't until she'd moved to America that "cinema found me".
Armed with a degree in animation after having dropped out of law, Ahd was keen to explore the world of films, and pursued a course in filmmaking from New York Film Academy. As the canvas got bigger, Ahd began to examine the need to have a dialogue about the medium back in her own country. Ask her about cinema in Saudi Arabia and she admits that it's still in its "infancy". "I had the first public dialogue about filmmaking in the country and there is a strong initiative by the government. But what we have to understand is that a film industry does not only comprise of actors and directors - there are production designers and other artists who are involved in different aspects of filmmaking. All these areas need to be nurtured simultaneously. The good thing is that people are exploring the online platform, since you don't really need a big infrastructure to put together a film there," she says.
However, the mother ship - read Arab cinema - is making giant strides. "I feel we have entered a golden age. Due to the volatility in the region, the stories that are coming out of here are powerful. People want to understand this part of the world. Small cultural communities are forming that may not belong to one ethnic community, but, we are banding together." The flipside? "Not enough Arabs are watching these films. The audience - the engine behind the industry - is not responding. Multiplexes are not getting filled with Arab cinema. There isn't enough funding either."
Apart from developing an indigenous brand of cinema, crossing over to the English language shows/films in the West also affords Arab artistes an opportunity to rewrite the rules and make a difference in the way this part of the world is understood. The question is how. "It's a tricky one. I think you should just be yourself because I don't believe you're not out there to market yourself. What we Arabs actually need to do is just be ourselves. I understand the idea and the image the West has of us. There might be reality to it, but it's not the only reality," says Ahd.
This could be one of the reasons why embodying hijab-wearing women on the screen is important to her - not because of what the hijab may symbolise, but the need to delve into the mind of the woman underneath. "For me, the question is not about hijab. It's just an accessory. It's about seeing the more human side of the characters I am portraying. That's what I did with my last film Sanctity (her 2013 short film that revolves around a pregnant widow's relentless efforts to protect her unborn child). It's about peeling the layers and not getting typecast with the hijab. I love London because I can be dressed however I want and across the street, there will be a woman in a hijab. That's the way it should be. Who gets to tell us what we should be doing?"
As we wrap up our conversation, Ahd mentions that, as a filmmaker, she is fascinated by archetypes. "The archetype I am attracted to is anyone who is ostracised, stories of ordinary people that are not told. Right now, I am interested in all the untold stories in history. Most of my films are born out of specific questions that I have in my mind." Questions that lend themselves into fantastic journeys on the screen!