The Saudi filmmakers who made a splash at Cannes

The Saudi filmmakers who made a splash at Cannes
Updated 14 April 2019

The Saudi filmmakers who made a splash at Cannes

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. 
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.