Toronto 2023 Review: NAGA, Drug-Infused Race Against the Clock
Sara is in the middle of the desert, a fair drive from her city of Riyadh. She's been taking drugs. The police raided the event she was at, scattering everyone. She can't find her boyfriend. She doesn't have the keys to his car. She has to get back to the city by 9:59pm exactly. EXACTLY, or she faces literal deadly consequences from her father. Oh, and did I mention there's a rabid camel on the loose?
Saudi Arabian filmmaker Meshal Al Jaser spares no problem for his heroine, in his feature debut NAGA. Part horror, part thriller, part car chase, part dark comedy, all rolled into one dangerous, incredibly tense night that will push Sara to utilize all her skills to get home before it's too late.
The film begins with a rather harrowing moment that highlights just how much danger women face in this country: a man kills the doctor who delivered his child, and that child's mother, because the doctor is a man - the killer's twisted sense of honour deeming that only a woman would be able to see and touch his wife in this state. Such is a burden of history that Sara (Adwa Bader) contends with. She wants the freedom allowed to any human being, but instead she must wear a niqāb anytime she's in public. But that doesn't stop her receiving courtship from Saad, who wants to take her to an underground party in the desert. Getting her cousin to cover for her, she makes Saad promise to have her back by 9pm. His assurances are not, well, reassuring.
Their drive has hints of the danger ahead: a strange truck that seems to be chasing them down; a band of shitheads harassing a nearby ice cream truck vendor; a moment of solitude between the two in which Sara's playful echoes would seem to float through the air to later that evening, bringing to life her words. By the time they get to the party, Saad all but drops any attention to Sara. She is far from stupid - even though this is a rare public space where she can remove her veil, she can feel the 'attention' on her and the other women. And just as she's trying to find a way to get back to the city, all hell breaks loose.
Al Jaser frequently reminds us of the time, and we are filled with as much anxiety as Sara. We try to think what she is thinking - who can she call, what transportation is available, how long will it take to get back if driving at top speed. Sara has no time for other people's insistence on ridiculous niceties, nor especially men's demand for constant deferral. Even in brief moments that take her attention away from the clock - she witnesses a bizarre and incriminating conversation; she's given lessons in how to use a sword to slice someone's neck - it's the dark wall surrounding her, not only in this moment, but in her entire existence. As a woman, nowhere is safe for her.
The tone is straight out of a 70s indie thriller - the quality of the image makes us feel so close to the action that you can almost feel the sand under your feet. Al Jaser makes terrific use of spaces - as Sara gets into an argument with the party host in a huge tent, and the vast distance between them, surprisingly, produces more anxiety, as a metaphor for the distance that Sara must cover, not only in this immediate moment, but her whole life. It's darkly comic and a momentary reprieve for what's to come: the confined space under a car where Sara must outwit the rabid camel (whom we can also oddly have some sympathy for) - this has got to be one of the best 'outsmart the animal who wants you dead' scenes I've seen in a long time (and yes, camels are scary).
Sara is no shrinking violet - we certainly don't blame her, and likely want to encourage, her rebellion, her anger at the stiffling life she is expected to live. She will, above all, survive, and she is pushed to the limits not only mentally but physically. Each roadblock thrown at her, she will fight tooth and nail to get past, again giving the film a 70s action woman vibe that racks up the tension, almost making you want to cheer out loud as she makes her final push for home.
Al Jaser knows how to rack up the tension, keeping us on the edge of our seats, while at the same time finding moments of off-beat comedy and biting political commentary. NAGA makes excellent use of every second, when there is not a moment to waste.