In recent years, the cinema scene in Saudi Arabia witnessed a rebirth with many films participating in local and international film festivals. Some of these films were considered controversial while many won prizes at different festivals, especially in the short film category while feature length films remain less prominent.
The latest success was at the 16th Short Film Festival in Beirut. Saudi director Mohammed Al-Holaiel won the prize for the Best Short Film with his latest work “Motorcycle”. Ironically, the prize was shared with an Iranian director.
Raseef22 met two Saudi directors at the Nouakchott Short Film Festival, held on October 23rd with Saudi Arabia as the festival's guest of honor. Ahmed Al-Mulla was born in Al-Hasa, the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. He is the director of the Culture and Arts Association in Dammam, and the Saudi Arabia Film Festival. Awad Al-Hamazani, is a director and a photographer, born in Ha’il. His movie "Photon" got second place in the Short Documentaries Competition at the Abu-Dhabi Film Festival.
Embassies to cultural clubs
The Embassies of Nigeria and Italy started showing films in the 1970s to a Saudi audience. In that period, a couple of cinemas appeared in different locations: “Bab Shareef Cinema” in Jeddah, “Cinema Shesha” in Al-Taif, and others usually found in sport clubs for a male audience only.
The first Saudi film was made in 1975: “Developing Riyadh City” by director Abdullah Al-Muheisen. It was followed by his second movie “Assassination of a City” (1977) and won the Nefertiti Best Short Movie Prize in Cairo’s Film Festival.
Embassies stopped showing films and cinemas were closed down with the rise of conservative movements in the eighties.
Al-Mulla told Raseef22 that “there is no ‘Saudi Film‘ per se, but there a movie industry. In Saudi Arabia, there is no independent movie profession, most of the workers in the industry are amateurs and have other professions.”
Al-Mulla explains the disappearance of the Saudi cinema today: “I’m not judging here, I’m only describing the situation. The lack of official support for Saudi cinema is an obvious disadvantage, but it has advantages too. Producers are not committed to any agenda, therefore they can play in the grey area that is considered as underground or secretive. This provides them with limited free space, which is an advantage in a prohibited industry”.
Another advantage according to Al Mulla is the young population of the Kingdom: "the youth in Saudi Arabia represent 70% of the whole population. This is visible in the film industry. They are always up-to-date with the latest technology and they are self-taught though some of them study Film in Europe and the United States.”
Al-Mulla continued: “As an observer of the Saudi film industry since 2006, I see it growing significantly, both technically and aesthetically. However, the scripts are the last to progress and come after image, sound and most cinematic technologies. The script is the soul of a movie and its core. We have noticed this issue with Saudi cinema, and we are working on it.”
Struggling to show films
In Saudi Arabia, independent filmmakers are struggling to create a space where screening films is not prohibited. Al-Mulla told Raseef22 that “institutions and cultural associations are the only places where Saudi produced movies can be screened in a non-commercial context. Intellectuals have no leverage over the lack of cinemas, as it has to do with the government and its regulations.”
During this year, several shows took places in Riyadh, Jubail, Dammam, Ahsa and many other cities in the Kingdom. Some movies will be screened in Jeddah this November, but not in movie theaters: “No one will risk opening a movie theater without the government’s permission. If Saudi Arabia officially allowed movie theaters, the country will be filled with them in no time,” Al-Mulla said.
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He added: “There is also a good audience in Saudi Arabia for short films. During the second and third Saudi Film Festival, a room with 400 seats would sell out as soon as we released the tickets, and by the time the show starts, people who are standing outside are more than the people inside.”
Awad Al-Hamazani shares a personal story with Raseef22 about the struggle of finding a location to show films: “We can screen our movies through literary clubs and cultural associations. For example, I screened my movie “Photon” in a cafe. We installed the screen and a few minutes before we start, the owner told us that what we are doing might put us in trouble. At that moment, another friend showed up and suggested his cafe instead, so we went there and screened our movie.”
For Al-Hamazani “ignorance is the cause of this animosity towards the movie industry in Saudi Arabia, it has nothing to do with religion or traditions. Cinema is different than television, cinema speaks about intensity, it touches sensitive areas and this is its role, it’s also about writing and combining arts. It is a type of visualized poetry, this is what cinema is to me.”
He continues: “big screens are important, the show makes you enjoy the experience and live the movie. Then there is the idea of a shared collective experience which has its own appeal. For example, there are two prayers, one that you do individually, and another in congregation; the latter have an important role. There is an energy that you release, and there is the energy of others, as a result, your perception of the film changes, and that precisely is what makes the experience of movie theaters different.”
Local or International?
Foreign film festivals are crucial for Saudi filmmakers to showcase their work. For Al-Mulla "there are many reasons for Saudi filmmakers to debut their films internationally, not least is the absence of movie theaters locally. Thus, Saudi filmmakers got acquainted with each other and with their Arab and foreign colleagues through film festivals". He adds that "this participation creates relationships between the Saudi directors but also strains them because they can only display their work outside of the Kingdom.”
"When the idea of first Saudi Film Festival surfaced in 2008 in Dammam, there was local enthusiasm and the filmmakers themselves undertook the festival," Al Mulla says. "This dedication continues today."
For Al-Hamazani "it's a great feeling to present a film that tells a story about my country, in my country.” He continues, "yesterday in Nouakchott, during the airing of a Mauritanian film, I watched the happiness in the eyes of the makers who were proud to share the film with their families".
The concerns of filmmakers
Saudi artists present a lot of issues, raising questions about customs, traditions and religion, Al-Hamazani says: "the artist questions, for example, whether the reason behind banning women from driving is custom or religion. Such questions can be misunderstood and can be perceived as rebellious or revolutionary, but the truth is that the artists themselves are trying to find answers among their audience to many questions they have.”
For Al-Mulla "there is no single issue that unifies Saudi Arabia. Film makers are concerned with making films more than philosophizing about issues facing Saudi society. Cinema incubates all arts and restructures them, so the lack of deep thought in Saudi film weakens the product."
In Saudi Arabia, taboos and self censorship cripple film producers. For Al-Hamazani ”religion is the number one taboo that faces Saudi artists, and in my opinion, there is injustice to Islam and Prophet Mohamed in the interpretation of the Koran. We are better off not going in that direction, because regardless of what we think, the matter is dangerous”.