Saudi director Ali Kalthami's debut film Night Mail (mandobe) was a hit at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah earlier this month and expectations are high for its local release, which begins at midnight tonight.

As is often the case in Saudi Arabia at this time, the Red Sea screening felt like a story in the making, as a local intergenerational crowd filled the auditorium alongside international guests, soaking up the drama and deadpan humor.

The Riyadh-set social thriller stars popular Saudi actor Mohamad AlDokhei as Fahad, a man in his late 30s who starts working as a night messenger (mandoob) after being fired from his job at a call center.

When he stumbles upon an illegal alcohol ring, he hatches a plan to increase his meager earnings, but later runs afoul of the gang running the operation.

Fahad's late-night deliveries take the viewer on a journey through contemporary Riyadh, from its seedy suburbs to the luxurious new apartments and chic restaurants of its rapidly changing urban landscape.

He also sums up a man struggling to come to terms with the profound social changes triggered by Saudi Arabia's opening as part of its 2023 strategy aimed at moving the country's economy away from dependence on oil.

“I wanted to show what is happening now in Saudi Arabia, rather than showing the past or the future,” says Kalthami. “The film documents some spaces and some things that may not exist in the future.

“Some of the smaller streets you see in the film probably won't be there in five, ten years because of the incredible transformation we're going through.”

Night Mail – Telfaz11

Front Row Arabia, the joint distribution label of Front Row Filmed Entertainment and local exhibitor muvi Cinemas, will release the title theatrically from midnight tonight on 121 screens in each of Saudi Arabia's 63 cinemas.

It is expected to work well. In addition to its busy festival tour, which kicked off at TIFF in September, the film is the latest production from growing content company Telfaz11.

The Riyadh-based banner – which has its origins in the Saudi content boom on YouTube in the 2010s – is riding high with the record release of freestyle wrestling comedy. Satarwhich grossed $11 million earlier this year to become the most successful local film of all time.

Kalthami – who is one of the three founding members of Telfaz11 alongside Alaa Fadan and Ibraheem Al Khairallah – originally rose to fame for viral web series such as Khambalah, La YektharIt is Al Khallatwhich has accumulated over 1.5 billion views.

The director drew inspiration for the character Fahad from two real-life experiences.

“I went to a meeting in Riyadh where there were many famous people. A delivery man arrived with food and he was like, 'Where am I?'” he says.

He also drew on his own experiences working as a hospital receptionist while completing his computer science degree.

“People treat you like a robot, as if you weren’t a person. That stayed with me to this day,” she says.

The report offers a portrait of Saudi society at a time of transition, where respect for tradition and the desire for progress go hand in hand, and women are adopting lifestyles and activities previously denied to them.

“There is a lot of resistance or struggle with change here. I see Fahad in friends and relatives,” says Kalthami.

AlDokhei is a longtime collaborator of Kalthami who has so far focused on comedic roles.

“I could sense he wanted something else… I told him about this role and gave him an introduction to great comedians who have taken on serious roles… like Adam Sandler or Steve Carrell when he did it. fox hunter,” says Kalthami.

There's also a touch of Travis Bickle or Louis Bloom in the protagonist

Kalthami says he and co-writer Mohammed Algarawi researched “Sigma Male Cinema” while developing the character.

“A Sigma Male is a guy who wants to be an Alpha Male, but doesn't have all the tools. There is a whole genre of Cinema Sigma. Cabby would be there, Clown would be there, nocturnal, To drive it would be there,” he says.

The character also addresses mental health issues in Saudi Arabia linked to the pressure to conform to society's norms and expectations.

“We went to a psychiatrist. We were like we have this character, read it. He gave us three pages of notes,” says Algarawi. “He said, ‘What I’m seeing is a guy with general anxiety disorder.’”

Hajar Alshammari makes her film debut as Fahad's younger sister Sara, a divorcee with a young daughter who has taken advantage of the opportunities created by the country's opening up.

“We wanted Sara to be the antithesis of Fahad. This is a new setting, a new environment, a new world. They both had the same opportunities, but she does them differently,” says Algarawi, who also plays the smug call center boss in the film.

The drama also addresses the new realm of workplace relationships between men and women, after Fahad misinterprets phone calls from a former colleague.

“We need a dialogue and a discourse about the relationship between men and women and changing the relationship. It used to be one thing and now it’s something else,” says Kalthami.

“It was the first time I watched the film with a Saudi audience,” he adds about the premiere in the Red Sea. “I was sitting in the very back and looking at the women to see how they responded. I could see they were laughing in recognition of the situation, they had been there.”

LR Ali Kalthami, Mohamad AlDokhei and Mohammed Algarawi debut in the Red Sea

In a sign of how quickly Saudi Arabia is changing, the film openly alludes to and shows alcohol, although it remains illegal in the territory.

“Swap that for anything else illegal and the story still fits. We have a rating of 15,” says Kalthami. “GCAM (General Audiovisual Media Commission of Saudi Arabia) loved it. They said, 'Thank you for making this film,' but we were wondering if everything would be okay,” says Kalthami.

Algarawi adds: “We were going to make a gimmick film about this kind of thing, but we never showed it. Ali had filmed the film without showing it, but then he said, 'I think things have changed,' but you can clearly see that the main character rejects him physically and spiritually.”

Kalthami previously addressed the subject of Saudi attitudes towards alcohol in his 2014 London short film Khambalah: a victim of reputation.

“It was about two Saudi guys who walk into a bar… and the psychology behind the trial… People loved it,” he says.

The film also explores the traditions of Saudi society, such as the sheikh system, whereby rich and influential people open their offices on Fridays and arrange meetings with people seeking support.

“I appreciate these alternative systems, which don’t exist elsewhere. I like to show the nuances of differences in our culture”, says Kalthami.

As the film begins its run in Saudi cinemas, Kalthami says he will now focus on bringing the work of other creatives to Telfaz11.

“We switched hats,” says Kalthami, about how studio executives move between writing, directing and producing. “So, in a few months I'm going to retire and go into executive processes and start creating and helping other directors' projects,” he says.

“We are all filmmakers. We have a filmmaker point of view and a business point of view. I'm happy that we're working this way”, he adds about the Telfaz11 configuration.

At the same time, he has three to four of his own projects on the back burner, but says it's too early to reveal details.

Night Mail will make its U.S. debut in the World Cinema Now section of the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January. Paris-based MPM Premium is handling international sales.