The Saudi filmmakers who made a splash at Cannes

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Updated 23 May 2018

The Saudi filmmakers who made a splash at Cannes

  • Hadi Ghandour takes a look at the nine Saudi entrants for this year’s Cannes Film Festival

‘Is Sumiyati Going to Hell?’
Meshal Aljaser
Actor, writer and director Meshal Aljaser’s “Is Sumiyati Going To Hell?” is a funny but biting story with a strong visual style told from the perspective of a child who witnesses her family’s inhuman treatment of their maid. 
“It was inspired by my five-year-old nephew, who asked my sister if his Christian maid is going to hell,” Aljaser explained. “And my sister didn’t answer him. I thought, ‘Why would a five year old think like this? You just started living! Why would you assume that this caring nice lady who takes care of you everyday is going to hell?’”
The daring film certainly tests boundaries, but Aljaser stressed it comes from good intentions: “I like to present what I feel and what I know is real. I’m really not aiming to make anyone angry, especially not the people who, in the end, I want to represent in a good way, like my government and my culture. I’m trying to express issues so we can face them and fix them."

Seba Alluqmani
“Alkaif” is a delightful documentary about coffee’s important social role in Saudi Arabia. “I wanted to make it because I’ve been living abroad for seven years and noticed that whenever I smell Arabian coffee I remember home, I remember gathering, and it’s in every single house on all occasions whether good or bad,” said Riyadh-based filmmaker Seba Alluqmani. “And so it’s something that we grow up noticing and knowing and drinking, but we don’t see it outside of its context.”
Alluqmani is particularly excited about the Saudi presence at Cannes this year: “I keep saying (Saudi is) the Kingdom of opportunities. Filmmakers are here, opportunities are here… the Kingdom is open for people to come and film and for their own talent to grow.”

‘Don’t Go Too Far’
Maram Taibah
Writer-director Maram Taibah’s gentle and sensitive film, “Don’t Go To Too Far,” is about a mentally challenged young Arab man who must find his way back home after being accidentally separated from his sister on the New York subway. It’s inspired by Taibah’s concern for her older brother, who has a mental disability: “I asked myself, how would he be able to manage in the world if he were ever left alone? What would happen?”
The low-budget short was shot over three days in New York. “The actor spent time with my brother and watched how he talked and dressed and walked and kind of emulated him,” Taibah explained. 
An avid writer since childhood, she cites Charles Dickens and JK Rowling as two of her influences: “I can see myself eventually working in fantasy. I like the bittersweet, human element in my stories. I like whimsy.”

‘Film School Musical’
Maan B. and Talha B. 
(NOTE: Just use pic of Maan B. as Talha B. has a later entry in this list, and you’ll need his pic for that)
Brothers Maan and Talha Bin Abdulrahman co-directed “Film School Musical,” a film that shows Murphy’s Law in full swing. Shot in long, choreographed takes and spoken in song, it’s the story of a film-school student struggling to make a film.
“It’s a parody of old Disney films, and at the same time we critique the inner world of the film student community, those funny frustrating moments we faced,” said Talha. Maan (pictured) added, “It’s my graduation film. I specialized in producing, I know a lot about the behind-the-scenes work, and there’s more drama that goes on there than on screen.” 
Maan cited Egar Wright as a reference: “In visual storytelling, he’s the king. He doesn’t say it, he just shows it.”

Ali Alkalthami
“Wasati” is based on the true story of an extremist attack on a theatre in Riyadh during a play about moderate Islam entitled “Wasati Bela Wastiah.” Ali Alkathami’s film has a distinct visual style as he depicts the day’s events through a variety of perspectives. “It’s a dark comedy tackling organized ideologies in Saudi Arabia,” he explained. “The public space of performance art and theatre in Riyadh was going through a gradual evolution, and that event kind of screwed with it.”
One of the perspectives is a surprisingly funny account of a man who learns he’s going blind. “We thought we needed to add a comedic release story in order not to create negative arguments.” Alkalthami added. “I’ve lived in this society for a long time and I’ve seen both sides of everything. We live in fear of others, and I think the lack of cinema and good shows enable that fear. You’re not seeing (a different) point of view or discussing it.”

‘Al Qatt’
Faisal Alotaibi
Faisal Alotaibi’s illuminating account of a unique and ancient artform — exclusively practiced by women in the Asiri region of Saudi Arabia — that involves decorating interior walls. “It’s a rare and singular art, and that interested me,” Alotaibi said. “I’m always drawn to stories that are insightful, informative and artistic, and all three are found in this story.”
The film first screened at Paramount studios as part of “Saudi Film Days” and has gone on to win prizes at the Short Documentary Film Festival in Rabat and at RIGA TourFilm Festival. “I’m always interested in working on true stories,” the filmmaker said. “I’m currently in post-production on another documentary about an annual festival that celebrates a seasonal fish.”

Musab Alamri 
“Coexistence” sensitively approaches a thorny topic: the Shia-Sunni divide. It centers on two college roommates, Nasser and Kalifa, whose bond is tested by sectarian differences. Ultimately, it’s a story about acceptance.
“I decided to make the film because, unfortunately, not many people in my country are brave enough to tackle these subjects,” said writer-director Musab Alamri. “Why are we shy about discussing our issues? We may be different, but it’s not fine if we don’t accept those differences.”
Musab has made eight short films as a director, writer and editor. “I believe as a director, if you have a vision, you must be engaged in all three.” He cited Tarantino and Spielberg as influences: “I’m a big fan of Hollywood. Let’s be honest, Hollywood is number one in the world.”

‘The Darkness is a Color’
Mujtaba Saeed
Mujtaba Saeed’s film is a moody, character-based short. On the surface, it is about a German hunter who delves into the depths of the Black Forest looking for his lost gundog. But there are layers underneath, too, which he approaches with poetic simplicity. 
“The film is more of a situation than a plot. It is ultimately about the crisis one faces when confronted with the shadow of ageing,” Saeed explained. He came up with the idea after an elderly hunter (with “racist tendencies”) took him on a trip into the forest. “He took me there from a sense of pride, to show me his kingdom and I became interested in discovering the effect of the forest on German characters.”
To achieve that, Saeed said he spent two weeks living in the Black Forest before making the movie.

‘The Scapegoat’
Talha B. 
Talha Bin Abdulrahman’s second entry is about the internal crises of a once-successful novelist who grapples with the fear of losing his creativity. American-Egyptian actor Ahmed Ahmed plays all four roles in the film: the writer and three personifications of his psyche. “My film is about writer’s block. But it’s also about the psychological process of writing,” Abdulrahman explained. “The main conflict is about a man dealing with aspects of himself, dealing with his ego. And this ego becomes manifested as people.” He listed Stephen King, Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan as the main inspirations behind his own storytelling.


Social media aids Sudan opposition to spread protests

Updated 35 min 21 sec ago

Social media aids Sudan opposition to spread protests

  • Activists have actively documented the confrontations and flooded social media with footage which they claim is “exposing” Bashir’s government
  • Other hashtags such as #SudanRevolts and #SudanUprising have also helped build momentum, amassing hundreds of tweets and retweets by the hour

CAIRO: Despite a long-standing crackdown on dissent in Sudan, opponents of President Omar Al-Bashir have found a voice online, using social media to fuel nationwide protests and share images of security forces using violence to suppress them.
The protests in Sudan began peacefully on December 19 to demonstrate against the tripling of the price of bread.
But they have evolved into deadly confrontations between demonstrators and security forces, and triggered calls for the downfall of the country’s veteran ruler.
“Social media is crucial for the movement,” said one 24-year-old activist, speaking with AFP in Cairo over WhatsApp. AFP has withheld his name for safety reasons.
For the past four weeks, activists have actively documented the confrontations and flooded social media with footage which they claim is “exposing” Bashir’s government.
The main cities of the northeast African nation, including the capital Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman, have all been rocked by what is now widely seen as the biggest threat to Bashir in his three decades of iron-fisted rule.
The 24-year-old protester said he only finds out about demonstrations through online announcements and maintained that anger at the “horrible” videos of deadly confrontations was driving more people out onto the streets.
One video purportedly showed a security vehicle chasing protesters to run them over, while gunshots were heard in the background.
Another clip showed people rushing to try to remove the blood-covered body of a protester hit by gunfire. Both have been viewed hundreds of times online.
Authorities say at least 24 people have died in the clashes, but rights groups including Amnesty International have put the death toll at 40 and say more than 1,000 people have been arrested.
On Friday during prayers at a mosque, irate crowds appeared in a video calling on an imam to lead protests against Bashir.
None of the footage could be independently verified by AFP.
Users have also shared multiple images of what appears to be security personnel beating up protesters with batons.
“We are people who don’t accept injustice. And what happened to protesters, whether it was tear gas or live bullets fired at them, is clear injustice,” said another social media activist based in Khartoum, who also spoke to AFP in Cairo and declined to be named fearing reprisals.
“Protests where violations occur are usually followed by larger ones,” the 25-year-old added.
The demonstrations have been spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA) which regularly issues online announcements of upcoming rallies, with the hashtags #Sudan_cities_uprise or #Just_Fall.
Other hashtags such as #SudanRevolts and #SudanUprising have also helped build momentum, amassing hundreds of tweets and retweets by the hour.
Thanks to social media “the uprisings in the regional cities have been noticed a lot more quickly,” said Willow Berridge, a lecturer at Newcastle University in northern England.
And that “has had an impact on what is happening in Khartoum a lot more quickly because of the changing nature of technology and social media.”
With the protests showing no signs of abating, the Sudanese government has sought to curtail the use of social networks, activists and analysts said.
Internet users have reported difficulties accessing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp since the early days of the protests.
It is not an unusual tactic by autocratic governments.
In the turbulent days of Egypt’s 2011 uprising against long-serving ruler Hosni Mubarak, the government blocked communications and cut off nearly all Internet traffic.
Such experiences prompted Sudanese activists to immediately look for alternatives for online access, including the use of virtual private network (VPN) services to bypass controls.
“Shutting down access to online platforms has proved a farce,” said Magdi El Gizouli, a Sudan analyst with the Rift Valley Institute.
“Almost immediately, the bulk of Sudanese Internet users were online through VPN,” he added.
And activists saw the Sudanese government’s heavy-handed move as virtually ineffective.
“It gave people an indication that the government is scared,” said the 25-year-old activist.
“This only strengthened the spirit of revolt in people, as it showed that we are on the right track.”
The 24-year-old also believes the restrictions on online media are “pointless” and have “little to no impact over the demonstrations.”
The government has in past years already moved to curtail online and print media.
And Sudan already has ranked 174 out of 180 on the World Press Freedom index for consecutive years from 2015 to 2018.
In 2018, the country introduced a cybercrime law and amendments to the media law that rights groups see as aiming to tighten online restrictions.
According to a November report by the US-based think tank Freedom House, at least one person has been jailed “for critical commentary shared on social media” in Sudan, and authorities have arrested “numerous journalists and activists for alleged cybercrime.”
But Gizouli says the government’s attempts to crush online dissent have been “to no avail.”
“In many ways, these measures have only reinforced public anger at the government’s securitization of the Internet,” he said.