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‘Bear’ necessity: The rise of a show without stars 

Saudi creator Abdulaziz Almuzaini on new Netflix film: ‘Being safe would be disrespectful to our audience’ 

DUBAI: In times of uncertainty, most people preach caution. Most people are not Abdulaziz Almuzaini. Over the past 27 years, the Saudi writer has put together an astounding body of work that has earned him a loyal following in his home country, turning his creations — such as the animated hit “Masameer” — into household names. Now, he’s about to take his biggest leap yet, crafting a live-action film, “Head to Head,” for Netflix that pushes the envelope further than ever before. But is Saudi Arabia ready for it? 

“Saudis don’t have a long history of making films, so there’s no safe bets right now,” Almuzaini tells Arab News. “We’re all still trying to find the pleasure points. All we can do is experiment and see what works. 

Adel Radwan as Darwish, Abdul Aziz Al-Shehri as Fayyad Sharbaka, Ziyad Al-Omari as Abu Ghadra, Ahmed Al-Kaabi as Abboud Khafash in ‘Head to Head.’ (Netflix)

“With this film, we’re trying something completely new, and we gave it our all. We don’t want to be safe and stick only to what we know,” he continues. “Being safe, we believe, would be disrespectful to our audience. At the end of the day, we just want our fans to know that we didn’t take them for granted.”  

“Head to Head” (“Ras B Ras” in Arabic) — which launches August 3 — may be a new medium for both Almuzaini and his friend and collaborator Malik Nejer, but it maintains the same madcap energy that has made “Masameer” a sensation on YouTube (and now on Netflix as “Masameer County”) since its debut in 2011. Full of bright colors and flying bullets, the film tells the story of a bumbling chauffeur named Darwish (Adel Redwan) and an unqualified new CEO named Fayadh (Abdulaziz Alshehri) who get pulled into a world of crime after accidentally picking up the wrong man at the airport. It’s all set in the fictional Saudi city of Bathaikha.  

Almuzaini’s creative partner Malik Nejer in ‘Head to Head.’ (Netflix)

“I had the idea during a bout with writer’s block, actually,” Almuzaini explains. “I was stuck on another thing I was writing, and I took a break to watch ‘Birds of Prey,’ a Batman spin-off. I started to think, ‘Why can’t Saudi Arabia have a Gotham city?’ I wanted to create one of those fictional worlds that help you forget reality for a couple hours until the lights come back up,” says Almuzaini.  

Mindful that it might be too jarring to viewers to drop the film into a totally fictional, funhouse-mirror version of the Kingdom from the opening credits, Almuzaini decided to ease the film into his new world, starting first in familiar Riyadh before events pull the two leads into Bathaika’s absurdist shadows. 

“That gave me a chance to really go crazy. The second you see that car go down the road, you know you’re headed to no ordinary town. The film tells you ‘Don’t take this seriously. You are now headed to a lawless land with its own rules.’ We wanted to create a disconnect, where it starts clean and tidy, and then boom — madness,” says Almuzaini.  

A still from ‘Masameer County.’ (Supplied) 

While the spirit of the film is still proudly cartoonish, its creators never intended the project to be a cartoon at any stage of development. In fact, part of what drove Almuzaini into the world of live-action storytelling after more than a decade was a response to criticism that he’d received over the years as a successful animator.  

“I remember people saying that we’re only successful because we’re the only ones doing animation. They thought we thrived because of a lack of competition. So I said, ‘OK, then we’ll show them we can do it on the same playing field.’ I decided to found a new production company, Sirb, and with that we’ll only make live-action films,” he says. 

Almuzaini took a meeting with Netflix, and told them his new idea, not sure how they would respond.  

“Thankfully, they were very supportive. I said ‘Give me two movies to learn how to do this, I might need to fail to figure out how to do this right.’  They said, ‘We’ll give you three.’ I’m thankful for that. That kind of trust fueled me to make something I’m really proud of,” he says. 

Ziyad Al-Omari as Abu Ghadra in ‘Head to Head.’ (Netflix)

This isn’t the first time that Almuzaini has thrown himself into the deep end and figured out how to swim on the fly. In fact, this that’s how this whole journey began back in 1996. 

“When I was 16, I failed math. My father was in London at the time, but I knew when he came back I would be in huge trouble, so I had to come up with something to set things right. I remember I took a magazine, saw a political cartoon, and I started tracing it. I copied it perfectly, and I took it to the headquarters of a major newspaper, and found the editor in chief,” says Almuzaini. 

“I went to him and said, ‘Hey, I’m a cartoonist. Look at this doodle that I’ve done.’ He saw it, and he hired me on the spot. By the time my father came back, he learned that I failed math, but now I was a daily publishing cartoonist for a major paper at the age of 16. How could he be mad?” 

It was a job that he kept until 2008, figuring out his style and voice along the way, By the time he quit, he was at the peak of his popularity, only stepping away because he felt that there wasn’t a future in newspapers anymore. Soon after, he sent an email to an animator he’d never met named Malik Nejer, starting one of the most fruitful partnerships in modern Middle East entertainment on a whim.  

While Myrkott Animation Studio — and Almuzaini’s partnership with Nejer — will continue, “Head to Head” is only the beginning of a new journey for Almuzaini, who is proud that he’s developed a legion of supporters who will follow him to new creative frontiers, but is also worried that all of his upcoming experiments could alienate people who have grown accustomed to one specific tone. 

“Having supporters is a blessing and a curse,” he says. “It comes with expectations. I’m anxious about that, but I’m also thrilled. Yes, this is my first live-action film, but no fan is going to think of it that way — we won’t get treated as beginners because they know us so well. That’s respect. So we had to show them the same respect and make something worthy of their belief in us.” 

What will come next? Expect the unexpected. Almuzaini has grown tired of watching movies that all feel like they were based off the same formula, in an era when screenplay books and ChatGPT have sucked the soul out of storytelling.    

“The one thing a computer can’t ever replicate is real human emotions, so that’s what I’m after. I promise that’s what each of my movies will deliver,” says Almuzaini.  

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