Prior to the end of the cinema ban in Saudi Arabia in 2018, film distribution was limited to sparse screenings of educational documentaries or dubbed cartoons accessible only to women and children. Of course, few Saudi Arabian features such as Izidore Musallam’s How Are You? (Keif al-Hal?), Saudi Arabia’s first big-budget movie, and Abdullah Al-Eyaf’s documentary Cinema 500 km managed to be completed, but weren’t shown within the Saudi Arabian borders.
With the turn of the century, the Saudi female experience became a main theme for many filmmakers, the most controversial of all being Haifaa al-Mansour, the first Saudi female filmmaker, whose feature debut Wadjda was the first film to be selected as the Saudi Arabian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Another filmmaker who tackles this theme with his short film debut Dunya’s Day is Raed Alsemari. Alsemari takes a different approach on the subject by employing satire genre conventions in his investigation of the affluent diva. In a golden room with red detailing sits Dunya (Sara Balghonaim), the Queen Bee of a suburb household in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Abandoned by her staff, Dunya and her minions, Deema (Rahaf) and Dalal (Sarah Altaweel), have to throw the most memorable college graduation party to keep Dunya’s image intact.
Dunya’s obsession with flawlessness is made clear non-verbally from the get-go. The impeccable symmetry of the setting’s design almost emulates the immortality of a momentary photographic click; everything has been petrified into perfection to frame Dunya as the face of a royal portrait. With her staff on the run, however, the estate’s metaphorical foundation is cracked, and Dunya’s world comes crumbling down. Looking for them in every corner of the manor, she gradually starts throwing tantrums as she realizes she’s left on her own.
This mental health crisis takes a visual manifestation as well through Olivier Theurillat and Alsemari’s precise editing. Temporarily replacing the initial smooth cuts with abrupt ones not only enhances Dunya’s distress, and consequently the film’s comic effect, but also signifies the tiny glitches in her spotless image. Having established that Dunya is almost compulsively fixated with her public persona, the film moves on to pose its vital question: How far is Dunya willing to go to get the social validation she so desires? The answer is: too far.
Considering that Alsemari has stated that he drew inspiration from Michael Lehmann’s Heathers and Mark Waters’ Mean Girls, Dunya’s ruthlessness is to expected. After she takes a step too far for her, yet too hilarious to us, Dunya stands before a mirror scouting for imperfections on her face and body. A clear parallel between Dunya’s Day and Mean Girls as women are literally unable to see that their appearance—but more significantly their lives—belong to them and them alone.
Besides her inner demons, however, Dunya is constantly confronted by a mean rival, Anoud. Anoud is more than an adversary; she is the standard against which Dunya measures her worth. This never-ending battle has taken a toll on Dunya as her nearly unbearable vulnerability inevitably cracks in front of that mirror. Here is where Balghonaim’s talent is indisputable—while the humorous aspects are skillfully handled to say the least, she thrives in Dunya’s subtle despair. It’s a layered performance that gives her character a sense of humanity that no one can ignore.
Alsemari’s aim was to go beyond the Saudi female experience previously shown on screen, and he succeeded. His take, albeit an undoubtedly male perspective, offers a different type of adversity. As a satire, Dunya’s Day is providing social commentary on the type of victimhood created by ideological confines that keep Dunya from realizing her inner value shouldn’t be calculated in monetary terms.
Even if Dunya is no Regina George, as a bus never runs her over, she has definitely learned a lesson through experiencing social ridicule. That final shot, however, in all its hilarity, is not addressed to Dunya alone; the punchline is dedicated to every eye staring at the screen, and screams that keeping up with the Joneses can only make you one of the herd.
Watch the teaser trailer for Dunya’s Day here!