Though a very young industry, Saudi cinema has benefited from support for the film industry and a promising generation of filmmakers has emerged. The long absence of cinema seems to motivate filmmakers to make up for what they missed, through stories belonging to different eras, by which they do not visit the past out of pure nostalgia, but rather to talk about the present and the future. They reflect on their society with a critical perspective at times, or with nostalgia for what modernity deprived them of at other times, or by drawing the features of the society they aspire to. The last round of the Red Sea International Festival (RSIFF) offered many examples.
VHS Tape Replaced is a short film by Maha Al-Saati, starring Motasem Nasser who also wrote it, and the emerging Saudi actress Sara Taibah. Set in 1987, it is about a black young man attempting to impress a girl by mimicking the music video of the iconic singer Steve Crown. The young man is ostracised because of his skin colour, which makes him reluctant to attempt to approach the girl he loves, so he attempts to embody her favourite singer instead.
Nasser, who is fond of the 1980s and likes to deal with unusual characters in his work, says he had always wanted to work with Al-Saati. “The film is the product of two compatible mentalities. As a black young man, I understand very well what it means to be bullied by others because of your colour. Maha was able to brilliantly create a context for the story that dates back to the 1980s, including the musical preferences of young people and the fashion of the time.”
Al-Saati, for her part, says the biggest challenge they faced in producing the film was the limited budget, especially since the it is set in the 1980s, and shows cars, video and cassette tapes, in addition to the character of a singer who was one of the icons of that era. Maha Al-Saati says the film initially won a grant from the Daw Film Competition in 2019, which is run by the Saudi Film Commission with the aim of supporting emerging Saudi filmmakers. “The film was delayed for a while due to the Corona pandemic, but after that we were able to find more producers who were eager to support us. However, the budget remains limited compared to the way it was executed or how it turned out in the end.”
As for going back to a previous era, Nasser doesn’t feel this is a matter of nostalgia so much as racist bullying. “We chose to discuss the subject in a comic form, and by using a musical character who was loved by many in that generation. The past may bring intimate feelings through which the issues raised will find their way to the viewers’ awareness, compared to the same issue presented in a dry way.” Al-Saati is more willing to acknowledge nostalgia, but she feels it is Saudi film’s way of compensating for not having existed in those times.
“There was no room for many years to express ourselves through filmmaking. Perhaps now is our chance to recover what we have missed, to depict our generation and many previous generations whose stories, daily lives, dreams and challenges many do not know about. It is part of who we are now.” Al-Saati adds that bullying or racism is something that exists in Saudi society, like many other societies, but it is not sufficiently addressed in artistic works. “This is my fifth short film. I usually like to deal with real issues that preoccupy our generation and our society, but I also prefer to keep away from the sadness that dominates many Arab films. Joy and laughter communicate ideas to both mind and heart.”
Within Sand, the winner of the Jury Prize in the second round of the RSIFF, was one of two Saudi films competing in the official competition for feature films. The film was widely celebrated during its making, because its setting in the desert made it possible to shoot entirely in the city of NEOM, in northwestern Saudi Arabia, which is being promoted as the first smart city in the region and a unique touristic destination. This is the first Saudi movie to receive full logistical support from the media production sector there. It was selected and funded by the Saudi Film Commission after winning Daw Film Competition support.
Mohammed Alatawi’s feature debut, Within Sand combines aspects of a road movie with the futuristic landscapes found in NEOM. It is based on a story from Saudi oral heritage, about a young man lost in the desert who starts an intimate relationship with a wolf he manages to tame. The film presents an example of eclectic nostalgia. It seems selective in highlighting the ideas it deems appropriate for the Saudi society it envisions, while presenting a critique of tribal ideas incompatible with modernity, such as patriarchy, violence against animals, and the domination of older generations.
Al-Atawi, who also wrote the film, says that he chose to have the world premiere in Saudi Arabia, given that the story belongs to Saudi folklore and is set in the 1920s. “I feel that at this stage we need to present what expresses our heritage and identity through cinema. Also, the relationship of the main character in the story, Sanam, with the wolf, has many connotations that express the nature of Saudi life at that time.” For him, nostalgia is a means of communicating with modernity. “We record the memory of Saudi society through films, but also in a modern way that is conscious of the society we want.” Al-Atawi studied cinema in London, and he says that he was influenced by international cinema, and this is evident in his film, but he decided to return to Saudi Arabia and participate in the ongoing modernisation, which he believes is the responsibility of every Saudi filmmaker.
Raven Song was another Saudi feature film in the RSIFF official competition. Mohammed Al-Salman’s feature debut was also Saudi Arabia’s nominee for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Al-Salman says he wanted to tell a story set in the early 2000s in Riyadh because it was an interesting period for him. “We as Saudis have many stories from different eras, and now is the time to tell them, to show what we were and what we became. And what is happening. I am personally fond of the early aughts through which I tell the story of Nasser, who may seem naive and simple to others, but in fact he sees things from his own perspective.”
Al-Salman does not deny that the film intersects with his autobiography, but this is due to the fact that it deals with Riyadh society at the time of his early youth. But he says the film also has a lot of his own observations on society at the time. The director, who is also the writer of the film, is not satisfied with presenting his memories and observations of that period in an auto-film, but rather he presents a surreal picture in which the contradiction between the main character and the characters surrounding him emerges showing society’s discontents.
“Most of the characters are male, and some of them act in a caricatured way that includes a lot of exaggerations. It is true that Saudi society at that time was dominated by gender segregation, so it is natural that the gatherings of men should be devoid of women, but on the other hand, I wanted to criticise that patriarchal society in a sarcastic manner. We are a satirical people by nature, and even before movies, we produced lot of satirical material that included social self-criticism on the Internet.”
Al-Salman is widely seen as a prominent figure on the Saudi film scene, as most of his short films received special recognition despite his style being experimental. Nevertheless, Al-Salman feels learning is the most important challenge he faces as a Saudi filmmaker. “My film had an excellent team in every aspect of it, whether on the technical or production level, but I always find that my films are very ambitious in terms of narration and visual effects, so I think that keeping up with the great developments in the film industry is a challenge.”
After participating in the Red Sea Festival, as part of the Saudi Film Program, Sattar by Abdullah Al-Arak went on to achieve tremendous success in Saudi cinemas. The film is about Saad, who has been fond of wrestling since childhood, though his physical constitution doesn’t help. Only when Saad finds the underground world of betting-mad wrestling fans does his life turn upside down. Sattar seems like a simple comedy about heroism, success and inspiration, but in reality it stems from a great nostalgia for a generational fondness for wrestling in Saudi Arabia. In the fictional movie, grandparents and grandchildren share watching and playing the game in secret and in public.
According to Al-Arak, wrestling is an important game in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia.
“Our grandparents and fathers love this game. We grew up with wrestling matches broadcast on Channel 2 on Friday and Saturday, where we’d all gather to watch eagerly. In our childhood we used to set up wrestling arenas in diwaniyas - the reception halls and the gathering held in it - these are things we all lived through, and I tried to recreate them in this film.” Al-Arak comes from the world of advertising, and he says that he made sure his debut would include all the elements of the film that are attractive to the audience. “This is not a festival film, but rather a popular film that was very well co-written by Ibrahim Al-Khairallah and Ayman Wattar, which matches its technical level of execution.”
However, an important part of the film’s appeal to the audience, which was confirmed by its grossing the highest revenues in Saudi cinemas since its release in late December, is due to the background of the production company, Telfaz 11, to which the film’s writer and actor, Ibrahim Al-Khairallah, belongs. The company, which started on the shoulders of a group of young amateurs producing satirical videos on YouTube 11 years ago, found out how to reach a wider audience. Their company has now turned into one of a prominent producer on the Saudi film scene, as four of its films – including Raven Song, and Sattar – participated in the festival. A year ago Netflix also signed a contract with the company to produce eight feature films.
Ibrahim Al-Khairallah, co-writer and one of the main actors, is also the executive and creative director of Telfaz 11. He says that Telfaz 11 now has a great experience with the audience’s taste, and it also has unlimited ambition to support Saudi cinema in all its forms. “One of our films, Raven Song, for example, is an artistic film made according to festival standards, so it was not surprising that Saudi Arabia nominated it for the Oscars. But in Sattar, the considerations are completely different, as this is a film that matches the taste of the audience. Another movie is Alkhallat+, which we produced in collaboration with Netflix. It is based on a series of satirical videos that we produced under the same name on YouTube over the past several years and have been very popular. The movie follows the same lines as the YouTube version. Our fourth film participating in the festival is Ball, and it is a short horror film, yet it is based on the Saudis’ relationship with football that millions of our children play in the street.”
Nevertheless, he confirms that Telfaz 11’s expansion into the film industry does not mean the end of the original arm of the company on YouTube. “As we started on YouTube, we will continue our work there as well. When we started on the roof of a building with a small digital camera 11 years ago, we were inspiring many who have rooftops and digital cameras to follow. Now we will continue to discover more talents through YouTube. New talents mean younger ages, which will keep us in touch with the audience’s taste.”
For his part, Antoine Khalifa, the director of Arab programs and film classics at the Red Sea Film Festival, believes that Saudi films have become more diverse and reflect different directions of filmmakers, which was evident in the diversity of long and short Saudi films that participated in the various programs of the festival. “There are the auteur films that tend to be artistic, such as Raven Song and Within Sand, which were selected in the official competition of the festival. On the other hand, there are more popular films such as Alkhallat+ and Sattar, which are commercial films, but they have good narration and sophisticated techniques, and do not lack for aesthetics.”
Khalifa adds that this reflects the divergent aspirations of Saudi filmmakers. There are directors who have become inclined to make films that express personal concerns and discuss sensitive issues related to society and the changes taking place, while there are directors who choose to focus on the box office and take advantage of the huge production capabilities now available. “The good thing is that the Saudi support funds support both directions very well.” The pace of ongoing changes is accelerating and the support provided to the Saudi film industry is growing steadily, which may put pressure on filmmakers trying to catch up with what is going on. “But I believe that filmmakers should take their time and think in which directions they want to move forward without rushing, and I see that there are already directors who are aware of where they are and where they want to go. I think this is the best way to survive and continue. The filmmaker should not yield to pressure, even if when is positive.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.