As ‘The Arabian Warrior’ is released, its star Amir El Masry speaks to The National about moving the goalposts for Arab actors
We speak to the star of the ‘The Arabian Warrior’ - the first Saudi/US film
It’s barely three months since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that cinemas would be allowed to reopen in the country, and we’ve already seen a flurry of activity as international cinema chains jostle for position in what is soon to be the region’s biggest market. Filmmakers are preparing for the movie-friendly era and audiences are anticipating being able to watch films in public with their friends for the first time in up to four decades.
Now, we can watch the first ever Saudi/American co-produced movie in the shape of The Arabian Warrior, a sporting drama which had its regional premiere in Dubai on Monday, and opens in cinemas nationally this weekend.
The film tells the story of Anmar Almadi, a Saudi student in the United States who dreams of becoming a professional footballer. His father and family have other ideas, however, and the ensuing struggle serves as a microcosm for the conflict between the modern and the traditional that pervades contemporary Saudi society.
The Arabian Warrior is the feature debut of the Los Angeles-based Saudi producer/director siblings Aymen and Mohammad Khoja, and stars a host of Hollywood talent, including Better Call Saul’s Patrick Fabian as Anmar’s coach, The Looming Tower’s Ayman Samman as his conservative father Khaled, and the British-Egyptian actor Amir El Masry, who has appeared in Jon Stewart’s feature debut Rosewater and as a recurring character in The Night Manager alongside Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, as the aspiring Pele, Anmar himself.
The National caught up with El Masry on the red carpet of the film’s Dubai premiere, where the actor said he was pleased to be playing a positive Arab role model in a Hollywood movie. “I think it’s really important that we see relatable characters that we can see and go, ‘I want to be the next footballer – I don’t want to go down that typical path,’” he says. “A lot of Arab kids are itching to go down that creative path, or sporting path, or whatever path. But you really have to have a lot of stubbornness and a thick skin to get what you want. There is still a lot of prejudice about non-traditional career or life choices, especially as an Arab.” El Masry adds that, despite his British birth and accent, he sees himself as something of an ambassador for the Arab world when he appears in shows portraying his culture to western audiences. “I’m trying to bridge that gap and make people see us in a different light, and that’s absolutely vital with everything going on in the media at the moment.”
A common complaint among Arab actors is that they receive so many offers for roles as terrorists and other assorted villains from Hollywood. El Masry admits that he’s been fortunate enough to mainly play good guys in his career to date, although he says that he wouldn’t refuse villainous roles, as long as the characters were real people, not just generic Arab bad-guy tropes.
“Sometimes you have to reflect the truth if that’s what’s going on, even if it’s not necessarily positive all the time, but at least make those characters a central part of the story, not just a cog in a big wheel.”
Finally, on this momentous evening for Saudi cinema, El Masry had encouraging words for the Saudi film industry, and the nation in general. “Saudi Arabia is going through so many changes right now, good changes,” he said.
“Women are allowed to drive now, cinemas are opening up again. They’re listening to their people and making genuine progress, and it’s really encouraging.”