Sky is the limit for Saudi filmmakers
The chances are good that 2018 will be remembered as the year of Saudi Arabian cinema. Not only did the first movie theaters open in Riyadh in April after a three-decade absence, but the burgeoning Saudi filmmaking industry is also seeking to make a great leap forward this year. This is certainly great news for Saudi moviegoers. Vision 2030 has made providing more entertainment options one of its priorities. But films are more than mere entertainment — filmmakers, like all artists, have a message to convey. The good ones do a lot more than make us laugh or cry; they make us think.
Much has been written and said about the screening of American superhero epic “Black Panther” in mid-April. Saudis and expats who attended the screening and then regular shows could barely contain their excitement. After all, Saudis have long complained that attending movies was one of the main reasons they traveled to Bahrain, for instance. For the hundreds of thousands of Saudis who vacation in the US, the movie-going experience is also a big draw. I often marvel at how many movies some of my Saudi friends or relatives will attend during their summer vacations in the Washington area. Some will go to as many films in one week as I do all year.
Of course, we as consumers and viewers are only one side of the equation. Vision 2030 has also provided myriad incentives for Saudi artists of all ages and both genders to develop their talents, and filmmakers are no exception. Last week, the director general of the General Culture Authority and supervisor of the Saudi Film Council, Ahmed Al-Mazyad, announced a number of initiatives aimed at supporting Saudi filmmakers and the industry at Cannes Film Festival. Not long ago, the idea of Saudis being involved in Cannes was considered far-fetched.
The council has also announced that it will be partnering with internationally renowned institutions like the University of Southern California, which has one of the most respected film schools in the world, to train young filmmakers. In addition, the council announced it would be supporting Haifaa Al-Mansour, the female Saudi director who garnered international acclaim for directing the film “Wadjda” back in 2012. Her next project is called “The Perfect Candidate.”
The chances are good that 2018 will be remembered as the year of Saudi Arabian cinema.
I attended a screening of “Wadjda” when it was shown in the US and there is no denying Al-Mansour’s talent as a storyteller and director. Her characters were also well developed and compelling. The movie tells the coming-of-age story of a teenager and the challenges of her mother. While it seems clear that Al-Mansour wanted to shine a spotlight on some of the difficult issues involving gender equality in the Kingdom, the movie was not a documentary. It was a drama that likely resonated with many Saudis but was not intended to be a realistic portrayal of what life is like for everyone in Saudi Arabia. I hope that viewers from other countries, particularly those in the West, heed this warning when viewing works of fiction about other countries.
Film is a powerful medium. Movies are so powerful that even a lack of sound did not hamper their popularity. After all, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” showed just how universal physical comedy is and how adept film was at capturing it.
Many have used film to raise awareness about serious social issues. For example, “Philadelphia” dealt with the stigma of Aids, a subject that a large segment of the American population was likely unfamiliar with. But film can also be a dangerous tool that can be used as propaganda, as was done by the Nazis during the Second World War. Occasionally, filmmakers will err by seemingly glorifying war, organized crime or gangs. In the past, movies have perpetuated terrible stereotypes about certain nationalities, ethnicities or religious groups. In fact, movie critic Jack Shaheen wrote a book and produced a movie called “Reel Bad Arabs,” which chronicled the long history of negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood movies. To their credit, contemporary filmmakers understand the power of their medium and most are responsible enough not to stigmatize minorities or other nations.
For Saudi filmmakers, the sky is the limit. A number of government bodies and international institutions have already recognized their talent. Saudi television has begun showing Saudi films on a regular basis to raise the profile of the filmmakers and to broaden their audience. If movies like “Wadjda,” “Barakah Meets Barakah” and “Menahi” are an indication, the future looks very bright indeed.
Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization.