As Saudi actor Adwa Bader and director Meshal Aljaser premiere their movie Naga at the Toronto international film festival, they share what it takes to make a star
Adwa Bader, Saudi Arabian-American actor, poet, and writer, touched down in Toronto in September for the world premiere of her film Naga at the Toronto international film festival (TIFF). The film marks her debut as a lead performer and is also the first one from Saudi YouTuber/director Meshal Aljaser. Bader’s performance as Sarah, a young woman battling all manner of obstacles to return home after being stranded in the desert, earned her a spot in TIFF’s Rising Stars program, a mentorship and networking opportunity offered to promising young artists by the festival.
Naga tells the story of Sarah and her secret boyfriend, who insists they drive out to the desert for an underground party. Despite her misgivings and fear of her strict father’s punishment, Sarah agrees, but the plan immediately begins to go awry. “The script was relatable to me,” says Bader. “It’s a day that turns into a nightmare, and anyone can relate to that struggle. It’s a universal tale. Sometimes things don’t go your way. That’s life. And you must learn to adapt.”
Aljaser infuses the film with a steady hum of tension that slowly mounts in intensity. As things get increasingly out of hand, Bader delivers a riveting performance that spans cool calculation, fiery determination, and quick-witted gumption. “I connected with Sarah on a spiritual level, because I had to channel her energy and it felt like she had a lot of fire in her. That’s something I see in a lot of young women,” says Bader. “What I love about Sarah is her determination. She’s strong. I admire that so much. And she holds her poise throughout all of it. Despite all that’s happening to her, she still maintains her cool.”
While she calls Los Angeles home these days, Bader was born in Florida to Saudi parents and grew up in Texas, between Houston and Dallas. When she was nine, her family moved to Riyadh. In 2009, while still in high school, Bader began posting self-portraits and poetry first to Tumblr and then Instagram. This led to campaign and event work with Harvey Nichols, Farfetch, and Burberry in the Kingdom and the UAE. But Bader wanted more. “I started as a model from a young age, as a teenager. Growing up like that was eye-opening and helped me understand a lot about myself. But in 2019, I decided to re-evaluate my principles and values and reassess where I wanted to take my art,” she says. “I felt like modelling wasn’t serving me the way I wanted it to; it wasn’t fulfilling. Then I moved towards acting and screenwriting.”
While modelling in Riyadh she met artists and filmmakers, including Aljaser, who has been hailed as an exciting Saudi Arabian voice in cinema since his first short films on YouTube a decade ago. Bader worked with him on his 2022 short Can I Go Out?, and when he was casting his first feature film, Aljaser thought of her. “I’ve always had a thing for casting non-actors,” says the director. “Adwa, even though she had an artistic side, wasn’t pursuing an acting career fully. While I was writing the script, I pictured who could play each role, and since Adwa is a good friend of mine, I knew she’d be a great fit.”
Naga is the first film from Saudi Arabia to be selected for TIFF’s Midnight Madness program, a curation of action, horror, shock, and fantasy films. Inventively shot, the film has an absurdist sense of humor that adds to its disorienting feel. Despite this being Bader’s first major role, she knows how to command the screen. “As the pressure mounts and Sarah’s emotional armor begins to crack, Bader’s performance takes on impressive range as the film slips from dark comedy into full-out madcap thriller,” says Nataleah Hunter-Young, TIFF’s international programmer for Africa and Arab West Asia.
Anger fuels Bader’s character through much of the film – both against the men who have wronged her and the patriarchal system that confines her – but it’s not always righteous. It’s this complexity and depth that drew Bader to the script, and she hopes to next bring nuanced Saudi female characters to the screen through her own writing as well. “I’ve written a few scripts and they’re all centered around female leads from my culture. It’s what I know and it’s what I want to write about – exploring themes of coming-of-age, the values we get from life, finding purpose, and exploring womanhood in our culture.”
The character of Sarah is a product of her environment, notes Bader. But her defiant and take-charge attitude may be surprising to some audiences in the west, whose limited perception of Saudi women sees them reduced to submissive or timid stereotypes. Indeed, during a post-screening Q&A session at TIFF, a guest in the audience asked Aljaser whether a character like Sarah is an outlier in their country. “Most Saudi women are tough; that’s why I wanted to represent that. They can be determined but strong and gentle at the same time,” the director responded. Such exchanges speak to the need for more Saudi filmmakers to tell their own stories and to offer an authentic representation of their culture and values to the world through cinema. “I’m grateful that I have this opportunity to work in Saudi, and that there are all these amazing talents and peers whom I hope to work with in the future,” says Bader. “It’s great that there are a lot of new films coming out of Saudi and that we are establishing our culture through film. It’s beautiful, witnessing all this change.”
Style: Mari Siviakova
Originally published in the November 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia