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Cannes Film Festival: From Saudi Arabia to the World – Meet Maria Bahrawi of NORAH


Cannes - NORAH
This year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia celebrated, and for the very first time, the selection of its film Norah as part of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category.

The film, which earned a special mention award, is set in a small remote Saudi Arabian village in the 90s when artistic expression was banned. The story is about the basic human need to communicate through art, in all its forms. Nader, a new schoolteacher and an artist in secret, arrives at the village and meets Norah, a young woman who ignites the creativity inside him and inspires him to paint again. At great risk, they develop a delicate connection and a quiet bond. Nader enlightens Norah on the wider world outside of her tiny community and she realizes she must leave, to find a place where she can be free to express her artistic self.

Norah was shot at the picturesque region of AlUla is director’s Tawfik Alzaidi homegrown debut feature film after commencing in short films almost two decades ago. We spoke to his lead actress 17-year-old Maria Bahrawi about being part of a historical moment in the new era of Saudi cinema.

AM: Maria, tell us about the feeling of representing Saudi cinema and how did you prepare for your leading role?
MB: It’s actually my first time in Cannes, and being part of this moment is a blessing. I did several rehearsals with the director and cast a few days before the filming took place.

AM: How was life on set like?
MB: It was quite challenging as I had to balance between my academic life and trying to memorize lines during my breaks. We also tried to film when I was on school holidays, yet the cast was very supportive.

AM: And why did you choose to become an actress?
MB: It’s always been a dream of mine, growing up I was a cinephile. Fortunately, I found the right opportunity.

AM: Any role model growing up?

MB: My mother, she is resilient and the accurate image of a strong woman. She never left my side during the filming process; she was with me every day even up to 12 hours on set.

AM: How was it like working with the director Tawfik Alzaidi?
MB: Tawfik is very flexible, patient and intellectual. I enjoyed his suggestions and support. There’s no Norah without Tawfik.

AM: How does Norah resemble you?
MB: Let’s say 50% of Maria can be found in her. She is very determined and ambitious. She doesn’t take no for an answer.

AM: As a young actress, how proud are you of the change we are witnessing in Saudi Arabia?
MB: I am extremely proud, it’s beyond words. I belong to the generation of 2030 which helped us reach our ultimate dreams. Without the Crown Prince’s vision, I wouldn’t be here.