Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 9 July 2020

'Whispers': the first Saudi Arabian Netflix original reflects a more modern kingdom

'This series talks about modern life in Saudi Arabia that not many people have seen before, because it has rarely been presented that way'

L-R Nada Tawhid and Abdul Mohsen Alnimer star in Whipers. Netflix
L-R Nada Tawhid and Abdul Mohsen Alnimer star in Whipers. Netflix

Netflix original productions are all about cutting to the chase.

This means long and unwieldy plot lines tend to be snipped and replaced with tightly coiled narratives.

Netflix will now apply that laser sharp focus to its first original Saudi Arabian production.

Premiering on the platform on Thursday, June 11, Whispers is a taut domestic thriller focused on the mysterious death of marketing executive Hassan and how it ricochets around his family and business associates.

With a predominantly Saudi cast and crew, including stars Abdul Mohsen Alnimer and Shaimaa Al Fadl, and writer and director Hana Al Omair, the eight-part series presents a new mode of production for Gulf dramas, which are traditionally told in epic 30-episode formats in order to run throughout Ramadan – a period considered a ratings boon for regional broadcasters.

A new way of working

As someone who starred in two Ramadan series this year, the Gulf drama Um Haroon and Emirati period production Harres Al Jabal, Alnimer says he prefers the streamlined approach of Whispers.

“But that doesn’t make the workload any different. In a way, the job is even more difficult as everything is extremely concentrated,” he says. “This means that nothing goes to waste. Each scene has its value and it’s not about adding them until we get 30 episodes. In a way, I look at my experience working on Whispers as similar to working on a film and that gives me extra focus in what I do.”

This is a sentiment echoed by co-star Al Fadl. In the role of Hassan's wife, Amal, she is a whirlwind of emotions as she channels equal amounts of grief, rage and paranoia and increasingly realises things are not what they seem.

In a standard television Gulf drama, Al Fadl states that these emotional peak points would have arrived at a more leisurely pace. The condensed format of Whispers, however, required her to up the ante from her first scene.

“Amal goes through a lot of emotions within each episode and, ultimately, I view her as a strong character because she deals with the situations in front of her,” she says.

“I have to thank Hana Al Omair for this, too, as the writer and director, she was heavily involved and told me which scenes required me to go for it and in which parts to take a step back.”

A shape-shifting plot

Whispers could prove to be a strong international calling card for Al Omair, who previously directed the 2018 drama series Bidun Filter. As a director, she imbues the series with cold and stark visuals recalling the work of American director David Fincher.

The script is equally bold in that it follows a Rashomon-like structure in which each episode recounts the same moment through the subjective and self-serving eyes of eight characters.

“This is not the traditional storytelling structure that we are used to in the region,” she says.

“And this was where the challenge was with this project. With most of the scenes happening indoors (either Hassan’s home or the office), the story is really told through the visual details. So I try to render the character’s personality through what is found in their bedroom, for instance, from the colour scheme to the items.

"I am taking the viewers on a psychological journey into the characters.”

The savvy female characters of Whispers

There are many eclectic characters penned by Al Omair in the show, including Hassan’s daughters, the graphic designer Sawsan (Norah Al Anbar) and social media savvy Waad (Nada Tawhid).

“These kind of Saudi female characters are not shown to both international and Arabic audiences,” Al Omair says. “The series also talks about modern life in Saudi Arabia that not many people have seen before, because it has rarely been presented that way.”

L-R: Mysoon Alruwaily, Elham Ali, Nada Tawhid, Shaimaa Al Fadl, Norah Alanbar and Leila Arabi. Netflix
L-R: Mysoon Alruwaily, Elham Ali, Nada Tawhid, Shaimaa Al Fadl, Norah Alanbar and Leila Arabi. Netflix

While pleased the series will be streamed to a global audience and come complete with translations in up to 30 languages, Al Omair says the landmark nature of the series never influenced the overall production.

From the script to the action on set, Al Omair says the sole goal of the cast and crew has always been to tell a good story. Then again, she notes that a good story also has a way of crossing borders and building bridges.

“I am mainly concerned with the story and focusing on what it needs for it to be told in the best possible way,” she says. “What I found is that when people love and connect with the characters in the story, they will also go on to love the [characters] world as well.”

Whispers will be available on Netflix from Thursday, June 11.

Updated: June 9, 2020 11:32 AM

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