DUBAI: Saudi actress Fatima Al-Banawi has made a career out of playing strong female characters. But that may not mean what you think. From her breakthrough role in 2016’s “Barakah Meets Barakah” to her latest Saudi thriller “Route 10,” the groundbreaking performer isn’t turning every part into Wonder Woman — instead, character by character, Al-Banawi is on a mission to show the world that Saudi women are complex, and that true strength is born from that complexity.
“Sometimes we think that portraying women as perfect makes them strong. To me it makes them flat,” Al-Banawi tells Arabian Weekly. “Women have different layers, and different sides. Women, like men, are imperfect. That’s what makes us human. I want to give my female characters layers of imperfection — sometimes naïve, sometimes selfish, sometimes arrogant — just like the best male characters. Otherwise, they’ll be soulless.”
Initially, “Route 10,” directed by Omar Naim (“The Final Cut,” “Becoming”) seems to be a basic genre film — all thrills, no depth. Al-Banawi plays Maryam, a woman traveling by road with her brother from Riyadh to Abu Dhabi to attend their father’s wedding — a trip that turns a lot more dangerous when a stranger starts hunting them, apparently set on killing them, turning a routine road trip into a race for their lives.
Looks, Al-Banawi argues, can be deceiving.
“I realized a long time ago that you can package things that are deep and meaningful and that hit a real emotional cord within different genres. I started my career with a rom-com, ‘Barakah Meets Barakah,’ that achieved that, and now, with ‘Route 10,’ I can do that with a thriller,” she says.
“I’m always trying to shuffle things, to repackage things. I say to myself, ‘I did this, so now I need to do this.’ I played a superstar on stage who wants the spotlight on her, so after that I wanted to play a naïve little girl. I want to tap into different elements of people — of women — that I can play and thus highlight on the silver screen,” Al-Banawi continues.
Six years removed from her breakout performance in Mahmoud Sabbagh’s “Barakah Meets Barakah,” which was only the second Saudi film to ever be submitted for Academy Awards consideration, Al-Banawi has honed her skills impressively, pushing herself as an actor and a person to make each role something both distinct and fully formed, a representation of who she is while also being something totally removed from herself.
For “Route 10,” she went as deeply into the character as possible, laser-focused on the fact that Maryam is a Saudi female doctor, and making choices in the moment that were unscripted to highlight the many facets of her being. At times, she embraced the principles of method acting, and just as the actor Marlon Brando famously would add certain physical flourishes to his scenes because he instinctually felt they would fit the character, Al-Banawi did too.
“In one major sequence, my character approaches the body of a policeman, and I insisted I feel the (pulse) of that policeman. There was resistance on set, people said a Saudi woman would not do that. I said: ‘No, I’m playing a doctor.’ I wanted to relate to all the female doctors both in Saudi Arabia and outside of Saudi Arabia, and those doctors have instincts. Doctors try to save who is in front of them, and if someone is injured, they act without thinking. As an actor, I do so much research that, when the time comes, I have to act without thinking. I had to become in tune with how doctors deal with every situation, and that was what fueled every aspect of my performance,” she explains.
Maryam may be a doctor with the strength to take charge in a life or death situation, but Al-Banawi stresses that the character has her flaws, too.
“She lives alone. She’s independent. But she longs for family,” she says. “She lost her mother a year ago. She’s grieving, but she never resolved her issues with all of these things. That fuels her actions in unpredictable ways.”
Al-Banawi didn’t always dream of becoming an actor. She studied psychology at Effat University in Jeddah before traveling to Harvard University for her post-graduate degree in theological studies. She focused on women, gender and Islamic studies, diving into religious texts and related materials and becoming fascinated in how important storytelling was throughout history.
She started tracing those lines to the present day, contemplating how the storytelling of ancient times aligns with the storytelling of the contemporary world — a passion that drove her, after graduating, to theater; becoming a storyteller herself. It was, she says, never her plan to become a movie star. When a script for what could become an Academy Award submission comes across your desk, however, plans change.
“I didn’t know this was going to come my way. Maybe I was manifesting it. I didn’t see cinema as my future. Honestly, I’m really surprised with where I am today. Throughout all this change, I’m still trying to figure out my path,” says Al-Banawi. “I want to lead, but usually a leader has experience — usually a leader knows where to go. I’m leading as I’m experiencing. I don’t know the route, but I do have a strong impulse to be true to myself, to not compromise, and to be clear-minded at all times. Those principles are my guide forward, and I’m happily surprised with where they’ve gotten me,” she adds.
As the film industry in Saudi Arabia, and the wider Arab world as a whole, continues its rapid development, with a diverse array of voices showing they have unique stories to tell, Al-Banawi is taking care not to rush her own development to try to match the pace of others, selecting projects that suit what’s best for her own journey.
“Things are changing fast, but I don’t need to be as fast as change. I need to be as fast as I need to be to grow,” she says. “It’s not about taking on as many roles as I can, it’s about diversifying, putting together a skill set and mastering it. Then, I can allow that to be contagious, in a way; to spread it, to share and grow collectively with those around me rather than just individually. I envision bigger things for both myself and us all.”
Next, Al-Banawi’s path leads her to writing, directing, and co-producing her first feature film, “Basma,” which she’s aiming to release by the end of 2023. While taking on a feature herself is a daunting task, one that fills her with a range of emotions, she knows exactly how she’s going to do it: By allowing herself the same complexity as a person and an artist that she allows her characters.
“I’m a vulnerable and fragile person right now. It’s my first feature. As an actor, I’ve read so many scripts. I think, ‘Who am I to write my own?’ But now I’m just allowing myself to be vulnerable, taking this as a form of strength. Everything I’ve learned on set has led to this moment, has fueled who I will become as a writer and a director, and as a leader. I’m putting together a team of extraordinary people, and it will be amazing to watch them shine,” says Al-Banawi.
“I can’t talk about my own contributions too much,” she adds with a smile. “Let’s wait and see what I bring to the table.”