Saudi Arabia’s oral tradition has handed down multifarious types of stories about supernatural beings, mythical creatures, and thrilling adventures. As time went on, these folktales that never cease to fascinate have gone on to inspire various books and films, including Netflix’s latest project, The Matchmaker. Not to be confused with reality television series Indian Matchmaking, the new Saudi thriller is the brainchild of Riyadh-based media production company Telfaz11, which previously struck a deal with the US streaming giant to develop and produce a slate of eight films for the service, and debuts on the subscription-only platform today.
Directed by Abdulmohsen Aldhabaan and produced by Mohammed Alhamoud, the psychological thriller tells the story of besotted IT specialist Tarak (Hussam Al Harthi) who follows a beautiful intern from his office named Salma (Nour AlKhadra) to an eerie desert resort run by a matchmaker, Hessa (Reem Al Habib), where all sorts of supernatural scenarios unfold. Shot entirely in the UNESCO world heritage site of AlUla— it’s the first Netflix production to be exclusively filmed at the oasis town with an all-Saudi cast— The Matchmaker covers universal themes of infidelity, disloyalty, and morality.
The concept for the suspenseful romantic drama was developed in Telfaz’s kitchen, according to Alhamoud, who joined the media production company in the summer of 2021, after they acquired his independent production house Last Scene Films, and the script was composed by Aldhabaan and Fahad Alestaa. Inspired by Ari Aster’s 2019 horror Midsommar, the conception of the new film was born out of a desire to introduce something unique to the Saudi audience, while maintaining the authenticity of the culture. “We’re very interested in exploring different genres here in Telfaz,” the producer told MILLE, adding that the idea started when they were trying to explore the genre of psychological thrillers, but with a local supernatural element.
“We were just brainstorming and we thought, ‘what if we come up with a character that is resistant to Misyar marriage and at the same time she wants to change the life of men who are trying to do so?’ And AlUla was picking up and becoming a very attractive and unique destination, and it also has an ancient historical side, so we thought it could be the backdrop of the story,” he said.
As the producer, Alhamoud was involved with creative process of the film from early drafts, to the casting and location scouting. “When I went to scout the location, it was my first time in AlUla actually, I was stunned. It was better than whatever I expected,” shared the San Francisco Academy of Art University graduate, who became an ardent cinephile by watching movies on VHS and DVD that he discovered through an online forum where he learned “about Tarantino and Scorsese” long before Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year-long cinema ban in 2018.
Many archeologists and historians view AlUla as an open-air museum, due to its various Nabataean tombs, historic dwellings and monuments, ancient rock art, and cave inscriptions dating back to the early Islamic period and before. In addition to serving as a jaw-dropping setting, AlUla also proved to be a surprisingly convenient location to film, despite not boasting a sophisticated and developed industry. “What’s great about AlUla is that you have access to endless desert, unlike in other places where you need to drive two-hours to go and film,” explained the lawyer-turned-film-producer. It’s also entrenched with mystique and superstitions, and was long considered haunted (“we grew up hearing these supernatural stories,” shared Alhamoud) so it felt like a natural and fitting backdrop for The Matchmaker.
With The Matchmaker, Alhamoud hopes to inspire a new generation of filmmakers to explore different genres in films aside from the overdone actions and dramas because “Saudi needs that,” he said. “I’m very interested and excited to see the reaction of the audience because (the film) is something different and unique. Until recently, we haven’t really explored the psychological thriller genre in Saudi. So for me, I’m really excited for the audience to explore that while also sharing our vision and the capability of our creative industry to the global viewers as well,” said the producer.
Alhamoud has also produced the short films Silah and Ertidad, which both traveled to international festivals, with Last Scene Films. The company’s debut feature Last Visit, also directed by Aldhabaan, went on to become the first Arab film selected at the East of the West Competition in the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and won the Jury Award at the 2019 Marrakech International Film Festival. Because The Matchmaker is a Netflix exclusive, the film has no plans to screen at international film festivals. “What we love about Netflix is that it gives you the artistic freedom to try new genres and explore new stories,” explained Alhamoud. “What artist doesn’t want freedom to do their work?”
The Matchmaker is available for streaming exclusively on Netflix.