A new dawn for Arab cinema

A new dawn for Arab cinema

The sentiment espoused by Variety, Hollywood’s industry reference, in March 2012 about a globally significant cultural event in Saudi Arabia was: “Some would say the impossible happened.” So what exactly happened?

That same month, the legendary Hollywood producer Jake Eberts was at work on securing yet another milestone achievement in global cinema, on top of the 37 Oscars his films had already won. This time, however, it would be a docudrama, “Journey to Makkah,” that would make history. Produced with the help of businessman Dr. Abdul Rahman Al-Zamil, the film had a glorious homecoming on March 4, 2012 — the first film to have a royal film premiere in the Kingdom, as part of the Jeddah Economic Forum and under the royal court’s patronage. 

What Variety had deemed “impossible” was certainly no easy feat. In 2010, the current Saudi Minister of Commerce Dr. Majid Al-Qasabi had procured strategists to catalyze socio-economic change. In 2012, Dr. Lama Al-Sulaiman, JEF Vice-Chair, delivered the premiere that made front pages in Hollywood. Three months later, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media was launched and, another four years on, Al-Qasabi and Al-Sulaiman were appointed to the board of the General Entertainment Authority.

“Black Panther,” Marvel’s groundbreaking movie about an African superhero, became the first film to be shown in a cinema in Saudi Arabia in four decades. 

Talal Malik

Last Wednesday, Ebert’s dream and that of the Saudis who had shepherded this change came full circle. “Black Panther,” Marvel’s groundbreaking movie about an African superhero, became the first film to be shown in a cinema in Saudi Arabia in four decades. 

With the realization of one Arabian cinematic dream, another is emerging. The launch of the Saudi Film Council and the Public Investment Fund’s potential strategic stake in the US talent agency WME, co-led by Ari Emanuel, represent the nascent institutionalization of an industry. While WME has launched its own content division, content can be king in the Kingdom, where Arabian stories are now being highlighted. The 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia” depicts the start of a desert raid with the line: “This was Talal’s village,” before the obscured Talal initiates a solo charge. While T.E Lawrence’s story became universal, the story of Talal of Arabia, like many others, has not yet been told.

But what could genuinely elevate the Arabian cinematic industry is when content becomes queen, as Saudi women continue to find their calling in Hollywood. Haifaa Al-Mansour, director of the acclaimed film “Wajdja,” now works with UTA agent Rena Ronson, while actresses such as Ahd Kamel and Dina Shihabi have appeared in Netflix series and feature films.

The Arabian cinematic dream has been built on the achievements of many contributors, some silent and some now long gone. As their feats are recorded for posterity, the future looks bright, with new Arabian stories ready to be showcased to the world, and with talent from its own sands, both male and female.

  • Talal Malik is the chairman and chief executive of the conglomerate Alpha1Corp. and its entertainment arm, Alpha1Media. Its movie project NANO was recognized as one of the best new scripts for 2018 , with full script approval from Film Dubai. 
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