Saudi casting call: one kiss and it's over for women

Hisham Fadil, left, auditions with cousin Dawood Mohanna for a role in "Almost a Rock Band," a Saudi sitcom in development that traces the challenges of an aspiring teenage rock band in Riyadh trying to make it big.
Hisham Fadil, left, auditions with cousin Dawood Mohanna for a role in "Almost a Rock Band," a Saudi sitcom in development that traces the challenges of an aspiring teenage rock band in Riyadh trying to make it big. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — It was nearing midnight in Riyadh's upscale shopping district, and 29-year-old Todd Nims and 26-year-old Ali Kalthami were searching cafes and malls for a fat, funky teenager who wants to be a television sitcom star.

"Think 'Superbad,' " the shaggy-haired Nims said, evoking the irreverent Seth Rogen Hollywood comedy about two awkward college-bound boys and their quest for a sex- and drug-filled summer sendoff.

The aspiring filmmakers have set out on a quixotic quest this summer to create innovative comedy television in Saudi Arabia, a conservative Muslim country in which singles can be detained for meeting in public, alcohol is banned, movie theaters are barred and religious police work to insulate the country from "corrosive" Western entertainment.

As the cafes began to shut down on this 100-degree June evening, Nims and Kalthami were trying to rope in a few last recruits for what have been billed as Saudi Arabia's first open casting calls.

"Those guys have crazy hair," Nims said before approaching three young men with distinct 1970s U.S. funk hairdos and tight-fitting jeans.

The bashful teens didn't know whether to take Nims and Kalthami seriously when they asked them to audition for "Almost a Rock Band," a series about four young guys in Riyadh who're trying to start a rock group.

"Do you have any friends that are fat?" Nims asked other baffled prospects, who weren't sure that the scruffy American was for real.

He is.

The pair faces a daunting challenge, but Nims is bold enough to evoke the spirit of Aramco, the U.S.-Saudi business partnership that grew into the world's largest oil company and transformed this Persian Gulf nation into an influential kingdom.

"I want to do for film and music what Aramco did for the modernization of Saudi," said Nims, the Saudi-born son of an American Aramco analyst. A self-described "Aramco brat," Nims co-produced a 2007 documentary about growing up in this unusual expat oil-industry community.

Like many a first-time script, "Almost a Rock Band" is based loosely on the writers' experiences.

Kalthami is a slender Saudi with a preference for slim jeans and vests whose true tales of trying to start a rock band became the basis for the pilot.

Though the two don't want to give away the plot, Kalthami said his nascent interest in starting a rock band was thwarted abruptly by the conservative constraints of life in Riyadh.

"I'm living a double life with my imagination and with the way I perceive life," said Kalthami, who works as an information technology specialist at the Saudi-run MBC television network. "I almost dream when I'm awake."

The pair are among a growing group of artists who are trying to take advantage of a slow easing of those constraints to create more space for arts and culture in the kingdom.

"As this country is opening up, Saudis are starting to ask themselves: Why is this country so different from the rest of the world? And should it be so different?" said Ahmed al Omran, the 25-year-old college student who's behind the popular blog Saudi Jeans. "The country is opening up, but there's resistance, so it's a really interesting game to watch and see if young people are going to do their thing — or be defeated."

Last month, for the first time in decades, hundreds of Riyadh residents — no women allowed — turned out for a special screening at a cultural center of a new Saudi-produced movie that drew limited public protest.

Around the same time, two members of the celebrated American comedy troupe Axis of Evil performed before mixed crowds in a series of shows in Riyadh and Jiddah.

The audiences, organizers said, included one of King Abdullah's grandsons.

"The atmosphere in Riyadh is not the atmosphere we saw in Riyadh 10 years ago," said Peter Howarth-Lees, the head of a new Saudi-based production company that brought the comedians to town. "It's not 'anything goes,' but it's relatively much more free and open."

Howarth-Lees knows there are red lines: The American comedians were asked not to talk about local politics, to steer clear of religion and to leave out anything too lewd.

Though the recent comedy show tested Saudi restrictions by allowing single women to attend, Howarth-Lees created a special section for them.

"We've always got the religious police in the background," said Howarth-Lees, who's working with Nims and Kalthami as a casting director.

Although clashes with the religious police invariably would be part of any story about attempts to start a rock band in Riyadh, the sitcom writers plan to steer clear of that issue, if a station ever picks up the pilot.

For now, Nims and Kalthami are still on the hunt for "Superbad" so they can begin filming the revamped story line.

The writers have changed the sitcom's name to "Almost" and have decided to expand the focus beyond a rock band so the show can look at the ways that Saudi culture can quash teenage dreams of becoming anything from a rapper to a soccer player.

Lacking a well-cultivated pool of actors, they held the casting call at a hotel.

As scores of aspiring actors and actresses converged on the hotel, the organizers ran into cultural interference. Anxious hotel staff shut down the casting call for women, however, after one over-exuberant girl briefly forgot about local customs by greeting a guy with kisses on his cheeks.

Even if the sitcom never gets on the air, organizers consider just holding the open casting calls a success.

"We're trying to change how people see creativity here and show that things like this can be done," Nims said. "If that happened, even on a small level, I would feel like the series had done its job."


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