Netflix has brought to the global cinema scene the Saudi Arabian film From the Ashes. The film is loosely based on the true story of an all-girls high school where an unexpected fire broke out and an investigation revealed some harsh realities. Before we step into the technical aspects, I must acknowledge that this film is insightful about the workings of the all-girls schools in the country. The many rules the girls must follow and how they are desperate to go to school despite said rules are integral parts of this story. More importantly, it paints a clear picture of the kind of rules women have to follow, despite living through a life and death situation. The film tackles subjects like jealousy, comparing students, parental challenges, school bullying, and more school-related subjects within its thriller storyline and overarching tragic plot. There’s quite a lot happening all at once, and it can sometimes feel like it’s all a bit too much.
I suppose when you read the premise of the film, it sounds a bit like a thriller mystery. “Watch as students, teachers, and the police uncover the truth about what happened to the best student in the school!” However, for the most part, it is a drama that brings to light the difficulties some of these girls must face and how the place they’re meant to be free to think is where they end up feeling most locked up. Despite how deeply rooted in reality the story feels, the film somehow feels overdramatized and overacted. There isn’t really an element of suspense, as the focus isn’t the fire itself, but what comes to the forefront because of it. There’s a lot of moral messaging, as is common with these films inspired by real-life incidents. The film runs for an hour and 35 minutes but spends a lot of time showcasing the many rules the girls have to follow. For a good chunk of the film, everything seems a little bit messy; however, the pieces come together by the end. I will admit that the last scene of the film is quite impactful, despite the rest of the film being mostly forgettable.
I suppose it’s a film that will spark conversation, though. Saudi Arabia even has a film festival that’s doing pretty well. It’s a step towards something exciting, and that on its own is quite exciting. Despite the film being quite lackluster, I’d ask people to watch it simply to learn about the culture, even if it would be a superficial education. The cast is quite compelling in their roles, and the young girls all do a good job of showcasing the horror of the tragedy that ensues. The three girls who play the bullies are especially good in their roles, requiring them to be cruel and desperate. There are many times you pity them, and sometimes when you feel they need punishment. The principal felt a little bit underwhelming because the character itself was very underwhelming and trope-like. Without acknowledging her own flaws, she is desperate to show the kids who are in charge, specifically her own child, who has many secrets to bury because of this estranged relationship with her mother.
The film, unfortunately, falters in several technical aspects, from the cinematography that lacks finesse to a score that struggles to resonate. The screenplay and direction, too, fall prey to inconsistency and missed opportunities for heightened emotional impact. Still, while the film may not shine in its technical execution, it triumphs in the power of its story. Despite its shortcomings, From the Ashes draws viewers into the heart of an unfortunate accident, exploring the intricacies of the human experience and the aftermath of a life-altering event, specifically in Saudi Arabia, for the young girls who have gone through so much and have to worry about so much else. The characters, though not fully realized due to script limitations, convey a genuine sense of vulnerability and resilience that keeps the audience invested.
Despite the visual and auditory challenges, the film manages to capture the essence of its compelling story. The raw emotions and the exploration of societal norms within the Saudi context add layers of depth, making From the Ashes a thought-provoking watch. It’s a reminder that sometimes, despite no captivating narrative and many technical imperfections, a film can still be somewhat impactful. Technically, this is not a film that is meant to entertain, so it’s alright if it fails in everything else but brings forth the story it wants to shine light on.
Ultimately, From the Ashes rises from the ashes as a film with a noble intention—to shed light on the challenges faced by young women in a Saudi Arabian all-girls school amidst a tragic incident. While the narrative explores the struggles and restrictions imposed on these students, the film stumbles in its execution, often feeling overdramatized and burdened with the many ideas it wants to cover all at once. The film’s impact lies in its potential to spark conversations about societal norms and cultural nuances, offering viewers a glimpse into a world that may be unfamiliar to them. In its pursuit of cultural representation, From the Ashes takes a noteworthy step, albeit one that could have been more refined in its storytelling and execution. As the Saudi Arabian film industry continues to make strides, this effort, though imperfect, contributes to the evolving cinematic landscape, inviting audiences to engage in a dialogue about uncharted territory. I would give From the Ashes 2.5 stars, specifically for the attempt to make an impact and for its realistic depiction of the events of this film. So, if you’ve got your eyes peeled for something new, unique, and a little bit thought-provoking, then give From the Ashes a go. It’s a short film that doesn’t even need much attention and can easily be a decent background watch.