Saudi Arabia’s wealth and reputation for having one of the world’s lowest poverty rates have solidified it as being a uniquely prosperous place devoid of a working class in many people’s minds. But with his debut feature, Mandoob, which premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, director Ali Kalthami tells a darkly comedic, gripping tale about the lives of Saudi Arabia’s gig workers, who toil in the shadows to make the fantastical lives of elites possible.
Set in the traffic-congested heart of Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, Mandoob chronicles the winding story of Fahad Algaddani (Mohammed Aldokhei), a restless call center worker whose habitual lateness getting to the office and apathy regarding irrational customers put his job in danger. As much as Fahad struggles to be on time getting to work or being there for his aspiring entrepreneur sister Sarah (Hajar Alshammari), their ailing father Nasser (Mohammed Alttowayan) knows that his son means well and genuinely wants what’s best for the family.
But when traffic keeps Fahad from being on time for the umpteenth time, his managers are all too ready to fire him for good, and because he’s left with little hope of finding full-time employment, he becomes a delivery driver for an Uber-like service known as Mandoob (which loosely translates to “courier” in Arabic).
Mandoob doesn’t spend all that much of its 1-hour, 50-minute run time delving into the details of how, in recent years, Saudi Arabia has encouraged foreign companies like Uber to set up shop within its borders as part of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan to diversify the country’s non-oil industries. But in its focus on Fahad and the desperation with which he hides his new job from his family, you can see Mandoob commenting on the realities of how hard it is to thrive as a gig worker in a system that’s designed to keep them nameless, faceless, perpetually busy, and underpaid.
There’s a haunting ominousness to the way Mandoob opens that gives you a taste of the dark turn Fahad’s story takes as his life as a regular delivery guy presents him with an unexpected opportunity to get into bootlegging for wealthy elites. But while Kalthami and co-writer Mohammed Algarawi definitely crafted Mandoob as a thriller, the script’s exploration of Fahad’s interiority and Aldokhei’s subtle performance also make the film play like a surprisingly comedic character study.
The deeper Fahad gets into his secret double life as a booze runner and a Mandoob driver, the harder it becomes to tell whether his compulsive lying or shame about not being able to hold down a salaried job is what’s keeping him going. Effectively creating that uncertainty and a larger sense of overcaffeinated dread are some of Mandoob’s biggest strengths from a narrative perspective. What’s most striking about the film, though, is the way Kalthami and cinematographer Ahmed Tahoun use their camera to depict Riyadh as a glittering metropolis whose beauty belies myriad social dichotomies.
As culturally specific as Mandoob is in many moments because most of Fahad’s day-to-day frustrations are inspired by the very real obstacles that Uber drivers across the world face, there’s an immediate relatability to the film that speaks volumes about the companies it takes to task. But as easy as it is to see yourself in Fahad and his plight, Mandoob’s final and most impressive trick is the surprising way it brings its story to a close while making a powerful point about public transportation, of all things.
While Mandoob was recently picked up for distribution, the film doesn’t yet have a proper distributor or release date, and it might be a bit of a wait before it hits theaters and / or streaming services. Once it does, though, it’s absolutely one to watch.