By Arab News
By Shaistha Khan
If a pandemic that has infected 71 million people worldwide isn’t scary enough, a Saudi horror film “Yajuj: The Curse of Iram,” is asking audiences to imagine an alternate reality where a deadly virus turns its victims into violent, flesh-eating monsters.
The feature film follows a group of tourists as they head to Iram of the Pillars, a recently-discovered buried city in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. On their way, they encounter a mysterious, fast-spreading virus that causes people to go insane and become severely violent.
For some tourists, it signals the end time — a prophecy coming true with the arrival of Yajuj and Majuj (malevolent forces also known as Gog and Magog in Christianity). Others claim there is a scientific cause behind the virus, while some deem it a bioterrorist attack. Based on their theories, members either pray, take precautions or prepare for an apocalypse. In what follows, they have to protect themselves not only from a virus, but warring factions too, and any bad decision could lead to their deaths.
The horror genre has always fascinated the film’s producer and director, Fahmi Farahat, but he was also looking for an idea that was relevant to Saudi culture. “In 2012, I wrote several scripts about zombies and vampires in Saudi,” Farahat tells Arab News. “But these characters come from African and European cultures. I wanted to create a genre or a brand that is inherently Middle Eastern.”
Inspiration struck in 2016, when Farahat was hired by the Ministry of Health to create public service videos during the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak. “As I was learning about MERS-CoV — which originated from the dromedary in Saudi Arabia — the idea of a virus appealed to me. I thought, ‘If an apocalypse happened in Saudi today, how would people react?’”
Farahat and his co-producer and writer Murad Alden Amayreh started working on “Yajuj: The Curse of Iram” earlier this year. In what its creators claim was a first-of-its-kind release, the film was live-streamed on Instagram late last month. Inspired by Orson Welles’ “The War of the World’s” live broadcast over the CBS radio network in 1938, the filmmakers used social media to reach a predominately young audience in Saudi Arabia.
“Viewers tuned in to the film’s Instagram account and from there, they were directed to other accounts where they could see the story from a particular character’s perspective,” explains Amayreh.
Viewers could watch events unfold through different perspectives simultaneously and interact with the actors. The filmmakers liken the experience to mediums such as virtual reality and gaming. “As characters argued over the cause of the virus, some turned to their Instagram following to ask the audience what they thought was the likely cause,” Amayreh continues.
Writing a screenplay for an unconventional medium presented some unique challenges, Amayreh says. While actors were not required to memorize dialogue, they had to embody their characters. “We gave them the situation and context, but it was up to the actors to pull off these performances ad-lib.”
The film was live-streamed from the green oasis of Al-Hasa, but preparations for the event began with intensive character development sessions and small group rehearsals. Coming from a theatrical background, actor Faez Choudary, who plays Dr. Imran Anjum, says the format is very similar to that of stage plays. However, having to film in several different locations added a level of complexity. Following the live event, the filmmakers observed that this type of performance required a varied skillset: acting, engaging with the audience, and being immersed in the environment.
The film’s cast includes a diverse mix coming from a theater, film or social-media background. However, one thing all cast and crew members had in common was the hunger to try new and challenging genres.
“Everyone wanted to be a part of something different; something that moves away from the stereotype of what Saudi was, a decade ago,” Farahat says. “Now, instead of complaining about how difficult it is do art in this country, people are hungry for challenging projects.”
The stream of two-way, real-time communication did not determine the trajectory of the film, but offered viewers an option to sit back and watch or play along and even learn a lesson or two about preparing for an apocalypse.
“Up until the day of the event, we were all nervous,” Farahat says. While the team anticipated social-media trolls, the risk paid off and the filmmakers are pleased with the level of interest and engagement the live-stream generated.
It garnered around 600 viewers on the main account and an average 1,500 views on videos saved from the live-stream. Anyone who missed the live feed can watch saved videos on the movie’s Instagram page (@yajujfilm). The team hopes to edit this two-hour long footage and release it for film festivals and streaming platforms shortly.
And the production team hope that the buzz generated by “Yajuj: The Curse of Iram” means it will not be a one-off event. It is intended to be the first installment in a series set in the same apocalyptic world. The team is currently planning “The Tower of Babel,” a film featuring a series of catastrophic events that coincide with the happenings of Yajuj. However, the impact will be larger as the second installment is set to take place in a semi-metropolitan suburb where thousands of people live and work.
“We envision a series like ‘Saw’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ that will be a recognizable brand for Saudi,” says Farahat.