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Within Sand

A lone merchant is ambushed by a gang of thieves and left to perish in the desert - Saudi tale of survival shows at the 2nd Red Sea International Film Festival


Twenty-something-year-old Sanam (Ra’ed Alshammari) is married to Awad (Obaid Alwadaani). She is pregnant, and the couple are still to find out whether the baby will be a boy or a girl. He is a devoted husband and son, his wife and mother relying on his manly skills in order to survive. Our protagonist is a small tobacco merchant, in a film that takes place at some point in the early 2oth century. One day, he is ambushed by a group of sadistic thugs. They rob and beat him up. The hapless man wakes up in the middle of the Arabian desert, no compass and water to hand. He suddenly has to hone his survival skills in order to be reunited with his family and find out the sex of the unborn child. Meanwhile, the women anxiously wait for him, hanky to hand.

Death is everywhere in these inhospitable drylands. Thieves can kill, and so can heat, dehydration and starvation. A camel skeleton is a reminder that even the most resistant animals eventually succumb to greater forces. The sheer size of the landscape devours Sanam, revealing that we humans – despite our smug sense of superiority – are extremely vulnerable. But not all yes bad new. Sanam’s experience is sobering: he learns to reconnect with his most intimate self, and to raise fundamental existential questions. This where Within Sand succeeds: investigating within the soul of its main character. There is as much inside Sanam as there is inside the vastness of the Arabian desert.

The settings of Within Sand are truly spectacular. The sapphire blue sky, hardly a cloud ever at site, offers respite from the unforgiving, burning, terracotta-coloured sands and the crumbling, reddish mountains. Occasionally these sands get a life of their own and rise, enveloping our protagonist and everything else around him. The film is entirely filmed outdoors, in the surroundings of the desert city of Neom, in Northwestern Saudi Arabia. Within Sand is a love letter to the country’s pulsating landscape. The desert is indeed the heart and the soul of the Arabic nation.

Sanam eventually finds inventive ways to extract water from the titular sands. And he strikes a friendship with a wolf. Human and canine share a sense of complicity: both are lone hunters seeking to survive in an environment that begs them otherwise. The ending is fairly predictable, in an easily digestible film created mostly for family entertainment purposes. Saudi cinema drinks from the same water as Hollywood movies – the ones to reached the country before the 35-year movie theatre ban was lifted in 2018. Of course I’m talking about Titanic (James Cameron, 1997) and Harry Potter, not Brokeback Mountain.(Ang Lee, 2005). This is a nation used to astounding sets and fantastic, uplifting plots. Anything vaguely subversive (haram) is almost certainly a no-go.

Expect many more such films to come. Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in cinema. It recently announced a 40% cash back to movies shot in the Kingdom. The desert cities of Neom and Alula are popular destinations for tourists and filmmakers alike. In other words: anyone looking for a taste of mighty and sultry Arabia.

Within Sand, which is inspired by a real story, premiered at the 2nd Red Sea International Film Festival. This crowdpleaser was very well received by local audiences. It won the Red Sea Competition Jury Prize.

By Victor Fraga - 10-12-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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