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Annecy First Title from Jordan, ’Saleem,’ Hits Festival Contrechamp Competition (EXCLUSIVE)

Folding the intricacies of the human condition into everyday life in Jordan, director Cynthia Madanat Sharaiha (“Noor”) bows her feature debut “Saleem” in competition at the Annecy Animation Festival.

The film marks the first Jordanian selection for the festival and was selected as part of this year’s Contrechamp strand which includes Pablo Berger’s offbeat friendship study “Robot Dreams,” a Cannes Festival standout, alongside 10 additional titles.

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Aiming to dismantle preconceived notions, Madanat Sharaiha calls on the tradition of storytelling prevalent in her culture to ensure a fuller perspective, parlaying the region’s quotidian routines into vivid, wide-eyed renderings of rambunctious and endearing children, their parents and the captivating provincial terrain.

“We’re a culture of storytelling, but our stories don’t always make it into the world. We wanted to tell a different kind of story, not portray the Middle East as romanticized, political or magical. Ours is a modern story that represents the culture, an environment that’s more diverse, different than what people normally see,” Madanat Sharaiha told Variety.

Billed as a family adventure, “Saleem” is the tale of a refugee who’s just lost his father. A young boy holding a mountain of grief, tasked with fitting into a new neighborhood. Trying to temper the large emotions that plague him, he makes fast friends and the group soon become distracted by an intriguing caper.

Working with psychologists to ensure the accurate portrayal of childhood distress in the film, Madanat Sharaiha relays,” We didn’t want to tell a story of a child from an adult perspective, but from what children feel and experience, in their innocence, their strength and also weakness”.

Produced by award-winning Jordanian producer Shadi Sharaiha (“Abu Sanad’s Family”), Madanat Sharaiha’s husband, and their boutique animation and digital content creation company Digitales, in tandem with Nadia Husseini (“Child of War”), the film dissects full-spectrum sorrow while highlighting the tools available to maneuver it.

Saleem
Saleem

Using engaging characters to facilitate dialogue surrounding mental health and the burden of displacement, solidarity is placed front and center.

“We didn’t want to focus solely on the trauma itself, but on the journey of recovery and healing , of adapting,“ Madanat Sharaiha relayed. “There are a lot of refugees  in the world. It’s very important to be able to understand and not shy away from asking questions, to become a part of their lives. There’s a lot of stigma, ignorance and stereotyping,  we wanted to challenge that in this film,” she added.

Madanat Sharaiha and seven co-scribes took advantage of a writer’s room, curating stories from their own experiences to incorporate into the script, each becoming wrapped up in Saleem’s wholesome journey.

With Madanat commenting,” As script writers, when we were writing the script, you could see each one of us relate to a perspective or angle from ‘Saleem’.”

3D animation is dominant, the visuals oscillating to 2D sequences when Saleem recalls past events. The process involved a far-reaching global network of animators, from local talents to Disney veterans Tom Bancroft (“Mulan”) and Rob Corley (“Lilo & Stitch”).  Award-winning composer Kurt Heinecke (“Veggie Tales”) scored the film.

A vulnerable, encouraging study on suffering, “Saleem” speaks to one child’s waking nightmares gently morphing into hope-filled connections, providing a sturdier footing for the title character and those around him.

Determined to propel social impact, Digitales crafted an online resource housing curriculum and a guide for organizations that care for refugees. Named “Amal For Children,”  entertainment and art are employed to nurture and unravel anguish. A therapeutic, subscription-based digital program dubbed in English, the team plans to further translate the material to Ukrainian and Spanish.

On the companion project, Madanat Sharaiha reflects,“Jordan has been a haven for refugees for decades, it’s our responsibility to share something like this with the world.”

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