x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Saudi Arabia's got talent

Last word Nathan Deuel watches the would-be famous queue up for the Kingdom's first open casting call.

Nathan Deuel watches the would-be famous queue up for the Kingdom's first open casting call. "You ready to rock?" asks Todd Albert Nims, his electric, American grin parting a week's worth of fashionable beard. We're arrayed in a rented-out conference room. Looking nervous but resigned, the sad-eyed Somali cameraman nods, the wiry Filipino tech fires up the klieg lights, and I sit back and hold my breath. For the first time in its modern history, Saudi Arabia is the site of an open casting call. Standard in Los Angeles, Berlin, London, Mumbai and other cultural capitals, the auditions were being held at a Holiday Inn Hotel converted from a compound that once held the staff of British Airways, which suspended operations in Saudi during the troubles from 2003 to 2006, when dozens of expatriates were killed in bombings and gunshot executions.

But it's 2009, and things have changed: British Airways resumed flights to Saudi Arabia at the end of May; the tourism ministry is making noises about increasing visitors; the religious police recently apologised for cuffing a man who allegedly kissed his wife; and every day, women at a mall in downtown Riyadh saunter the halls, their hair uncovered. Not only is Riyadh the site of an open audition, the call is being held to staff an intriguing project: "Almost a Rock Band," a comedy about four 18-year-old Riyadhi boys' quixotic dreams of becoming guitar gods in Saudi's strict social climate.

All the layers of meaning in this premise - and the casting call - are enjoyable enough, but they also carry a hint of danger. After all, this is still a country without movie theatres, a place where gatherings of any kind, aside from prayer, can raise eyebrows. Allaying my fears of a morality-police beatdown is Ali, Todd's co-writer, a hipster Saudi in his 20s with a faux-hawk, jaunty scarf and nonprescription nerd glasses. "I know the red lines," Ali tells me nonchalantly.

The guy has the real dope, or at least claims to. He's an employee at the IT department of mega-channel MBC. He says that when typical Saudi TV shows or movies are in planning stages, the producers and directors simply pick their friends. "They don't do casting," he says, laughing. "It's all on your looks, and who you know." Moments later, the first audition of the morning gets underway. Todd and Ali have never met Khalid, a barrel-chested 31-year-old Saudi in a smart polo shirt, crisp jeans and expensive leather trainers. He's simply responded to the call, which was spread via Facebook, e-mail and flyers.

"Can you do impressions?" Todd asks. Khalid begins to personify "Merito man", a Saudi stereotype referring to a vain young mall-walker cruising for female attention whose headdress is so stiff with Merito-brand starch he can barely turn his head. "That's just great," Todd says, guffawing. "I think we're gonna give you the part. You're in." As Khalid exits stage right, Ali fumes. This is the first audition! The American is moving too fast. "I was getting excited", Todd admits.

Tensions soothed, Ali and Todd sit back for round two. But something is wrong. I witness the panicked entrance of Youssef, a slick-haired Saudi from Gulf Casting, the just-founded talent company running its first casting call. He begins whispering to Ali, whose face turns white. "We'll have to do it again, in a compound," I hear Todd say. We all pour into the hotel corridor. In the lobby, women who have gathered for the audition - either vying for a part or just out of curiosity - are scattering, panicked. I see the slow, angry approach of the hotel's general manager, a portly man in a yellow dress shirt as wide as it is tall. Then I overhear Todd whisper to Ali: "I think it was just a girl kissing people on the cheek."

Perhaps carried away by the filmset atmosphere (or the thrill of seeing boys), one of the female audition attendants had apparently begun greeting people in the European fashion, and nervous hotel management had put a stop to it. Despite his hunky brio, Todd looks shaken. We all file back into the room, where the humbled work of artistic recruitment resumes. The next candidate is Daoud, a 36-year-old advertising executive. He's half-Saudi, half-American and carries himself like a teenaged grizzly bear, his great brown thobe barely concealing his girth and mirth. He makes eye contact with every one of us as he strides the room, acting out the bizarre antics of a teacher he once had.

"I'm not positive I'm a genius," he says by way of conclusion. "But everyone tells me that I'm a genius. I just need to be comfortable to show it." After Daoud comes 17-year-old Ali, a diminutive shovel-faced Saudi with baggy jeans and the bearing of a skate punk. Sitting there slouched and confident, he's got so much attitude he can barely get his words out of a marble-filled scowl. "What can you do for us?" Todd asks. "I don't know," the young Ali says.

Next is Firaz, 25, an articulate Indian national with bold eyebrows and the square shoulders of an athlete. "I'm very good at mathematics," he deadpans. "Nobody told you what the film was about?" Todd asks, seething. He glares at Youssef, who grins sheepishly. The potential actors keep coming in not really knowing why they're here, other than to get famous. The casting agents, such as they are, struggle with the concept of standardised preparation, and instead seem to play favourites, protect access to processes and generally keep things confusing. There are photo-copied handouts meant to brief each candidate, but those are sitting in the other room, undistributed. Youssef makes excuses. "Oh, they don't speak English, so we just told them what the show is about."

As the candidates stream through over the next few hours - a 19-year-old Somali chattering with fright, two 35-year-old Saudis who painfully overact, then a cocky Lebanese guy in his 20s whose jokes make no sense - it becomes clear to me that, to some extent, Todd and Ali are trolling for basic competency. In the end, maybe they'll be pleasantly surprised by the energy and dedication of people they get. But for most of the day in this hotel - already busted by the management, the women scattered - their characters' dreams of stardom seems as far-fetched as the show's chances itself.

I catch Todd at lunch. He tells me about being born in Dhahran, the American child of Aramco employees. College was at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Then it was on to Los Angeles. He tells me if the pilot gets bought, he'll make a permanent move to Riyadh. "You make a change here, you change a prince's mind," he says of Saudi Arabia, shuddering at the memory of LA's shallow glitzville. "Then you can change the world."

At one point, seeking caffeine, I find myself in the waiting room among the hopefuls waiting to be called upon. Boys and men in thobes chain-smoke and talk, their sandals on the floor, bare feet tucked up under folded legs. I make my way to the espresso machine and fumble with it. An intense-looking Saudi from the casting call strides over to help, his fingernails rimmed dark with dirt, and his lips dyed brown with tobacco smoke.

Back in the audition room, this same boy, Saleh, is up. He's 18 years old, and in the well-lighted room, he looks like a kind of Arab James Dean. In Arabic, Ali asks him to show us a scene. He strides around the room in agony, miming a scene of his own arrest with furious absorption. It's a riveting performance. When he's finished, he flashes the would-be directors a blinding smile. After he's gone, we all sit there in stunned silence, and for a brief moment Saudi Arabia seems as if it might indeed be what Todd hopes it is - an undiscovered country.


Nathan Deuel, a frequent contributor to The Review, is at work on a book about walking from New York to New Orleans.