By Rob L. Wagner
8 April 2016
Riyadh – There was a time, not long ago, that any discussion among film-makers about the future of cinema in Saudi Arabia would be a short conversation. Shooting movies on location was an exercise in guerrilla film-making. Screenings took place in Dubai. Young men and women making films were scorned for wasting their time on fluff.
Artists began chipping away at negative perceptions from two very different places in Saudi society. Director Haifaa al-Mansour filmed her stories in and outside Saudi Arabia on shoestring budgets starting in 2005. Her film Wadjda was the kingdom’s entry as Best Foreign Language Film for the 86th Academy Awards and nominated as Best Foreign Film for the 2014 BAFTA Awards. Taking a different route, Mohammed al-Turki has been producing mainstream Hollywood fare such as the Richard Gere movie Arbitrage.
Missing from the struggle to produce worthy films has been government support, or at least benign neglect, that would provide a breathing space to aspiring Saudis to pursue their art but conservatives actively discouraged the idea of Saudis becoming professional moviemakers.
Perceptions about film-making have slowly evolved. The recent Saudi Film Festival, which ended on March 28th in Dammam, was the result of a surprising collaboration between film-makers and the sponsors, the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts.
“We got a (great) deal of government support,” Saudi film-maker Asem al-Roumi said. “The government support took shape by allowing us to go public, rather than doing it in secret like we used to.”
Roumi is a graduate of the New York Film Academy and a part-time teacher at Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University’s College of Media in Riyadh. His small company, Asem Films, produces commercials and education films and covers special events. He recently directed Ghabash, a 6-minute horror story co-written with Badr el-Kothairy.
Roumi said government support is the difference between making or breaking a young Saudi film-maker. “In the past, a person might think of producing a movie and starts to shoot and write but stops because he doesn’t know where to shoot or where to screen the movie,” he said. “Now we have festivals, thank God.”
Roumi said his entry, Amal, was placed in the student movie category but did not win.
As film festivals go, the Dammam event was small. Opening day drew about 400 people attending ceremonies, screenplay workshops and screenings. In all there was about 100 film-makers registered for the festival and about 70 films were in competition. Among the entries were Their Stained Hearts, a Rakan al-Harbi tale about a museum for terrorists and Hajar Alnaim’s Hope that tells of a mercy killing.
Women film-makers were well represented at the festival largely due to a contingent from Jeddah’s all-female Effat University, which has about 150 women in its visual and digital production programme. About 13 Effat students entered screenplays or films in the Saudi Film Festival competition, according to Bentley Brown, an American who teaches screenwriting at the university. He said Effat students were exploring “topics of intellectual importance”.
Saudi film-maker Zainab al-Nasse won the Golden Palm Award for best screenplay for her film Wedding Dress. The award for best student film went to Motor by Mohamed Alhlil. Other winners included best short documentary for the film Yellow by Mohammed Salman and best short film to Abdul-Aziz Shalahi’s Fiddle.
Although Saudi Arabia has no cinemas, that is almost beside the point among film-makers. Festivals in Dubai, Europe and the United States allow Saudi movie enthusiasts to screen their films to the public. Most malls built in Saudi Arabia’s urban centres reserved space for future cinemas.
There is no formal ban on cinemas. Entrepreneurs can open a cinema but must face the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice on their own.
Few people in business see the prospect of a profitable business if commission members campaign in front of their cinema to discourage moviegoers from buying tickets. For now, film buffs must be content to attend the occasional cartoon screenings for families in Riyadh and Jeddah while those wide, open halls in malls remain bowling alleys and indoor go-kart tracks.
Roumi, however, said he sees change coming. He points to a cash award to film-makers from the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, affiliated with the Information Ministry, as evidence of the government’s commitment to film-making as a profession. Eventually, the infant Saudi film industry will flourish.
“I live in Riyadh and went to the Eastern province where they showed ten movies at one time,” Roumi said. “It’s not a joke. The production values of these movies are a great thing. If that can happen over five days now, imagine what will happen in five years. I expect a lot will happen over the next five years.”