The panel looked into the young Saudi cinema industry taking big strides to grow and analysed the history of Saudi films, to its current situation, the factors affecting its current state and the tools that are being applied to improve it.
Moderated by film critic and historian Jay Weissberg, the speakers included director, writer and producer Abduljalil Al-Nasser; writer and producer Hana Al-Omair; actress Mila Al Zahrani, and filmmaker and scriptwriter Mohammad Al-Salman.
“In 2012, when Haifaa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda came out and became a big success, everybody in the western media was discussing this extraordinary vision of the Saudi film. And yet those of us who have been following the scene in Saudi for years know that there’s a very vibrant visual culture and productions. With Youtube, short films and video blogs that contributed to a sophisticated understanding of the visual media long before the first feature film,” Weissberg said opening the panel.
Al-Nasser agreed, adding that ”Saudis are the biggest consumers of content in the Middle East. Haifaa Al-Mansour made a breakthrough in the industry; it was an inspiration to everyone. At the same time the Saudi Film Festival started small in 2005 with a humble budget and grew slowly. And Saudis have been contributing to the Dubai Film Festival and Cairo Film Festival. Now, the industry has changed. Since the inception of the Ministry of Culture and the establishment of the Saudi Film Commission, there has been a serious commitment to develop the entire film industry.”
As the panelists revealed, some people started on YouTube and are now dominant in the scene like Myrkott with their animated series Masameer County, while others were more involved in cinema.
“Saudis started creating when the digital age started. Now, we have programs and funds to support those endeavors,” Al-Salman added.
Weissberg also spoke about the driving forces moving the Saudi films forward. The Film Commission, Netflix, Red Sea Lodge contribute to building the cinema industry in the Kingdom.
Al-Nasser said, “our mission in The Film Commission is to build a sustainable film industry in the Middle East. We have funding from the Red Sea Fund, the King Abdul-Aziz Fund, the Incentive Program and we have production houses. We also now have cinemas. However, the most important is talent development.”
The funds offered to the filmmakers do not impose the content parameters on creativity. As Al-Mansour noted, “we dictate quality and commitment and leave the filmmakers to their creativity. It’s a supply and demand game. Also, when you target your film to a streaming platform or the box office, you have to abide by the rules of these platforms.”
When speaking about the industry in the Arab region and Arab peninsula in specific, Al-Salam noted that “the film industry in the region is a cumulative, complementary and compounding effort. The success of one country contributes automatically to the other one. We don’t have a Saudi community in the industry, we have a Gulf community. We collaborate in our projects.”
The panel underscored that the Saudi box office today is the strongest in the Middle East, to which Al-Mansour replied, “we’re still testing what will make a box office hit. The box office is still growing. However, during and after COVID-19, the consumer behaviour changed and people are more inclined to use streaming platforms. The Saudi box office hasn’t recovered as fast as in the rest of the world.”
Saudi cinema is gearing for the ten-day Red Sea International Film Festival, which will begin December 1 in Jeddah.
This article was originally published in CIFF's daily Bulletin. 20 November 2022, Issue 7.