TIFF 2023 | NAGA (Meshal Aljaser, Saudi Arabia) — Midnight Madness

By Josh Lewis

The Midnight Madness program at TIFF wouldn’t be complete without at least one anxiety-inducing, run-all-night thriller, and this year’s comes courtesy of Saudi Arabian filmmaker Meshal Aljaser, who’s managed to find a specific spin on it: taking the relationship between rebellious daughter (Sara, played with a determined, frustrated intensity by Adwa Bader) and strict, conservative father, and mining it for survivalist horror resourcefulness. NAGA is perhaps a bit too long to sustain itself but Aljaser does a fairly good job at playfully conceiving patriarchal roadblocks as tangible ones. Sara’s plans to disobey her father and attend a hip party in the middle of the desert escalate at first into comical setpieces built around finding a Samsung phone charger to call her mother and eventually lead to run-ins with wealthy frauds eager to eliminate a witness, violent rabid camels (functionally shot as if they were a velociraptor in a Jurassic Park movie), and frantic, handheld cop car chases through desert highway.

How clear its satirical points are about navigating a world controlled by impulsive, domineering men—the recurring practical use of men distracted by a soccer game and images of pregnancy violence don’t appear to amount to much—seems less important than the consistent energy of what that scary disobedience might feel like in the moment. The motion-sick hysteria of NAGA’s deliriously subjective camera movement and rapid strobe editing (which sometimes feels like a deliberate choice, other times like a budgetary limitation) lets us tag along in the concentrated joyride of quick wit, will, and luck that is required to make it home before curfew as a Saudi woman.