quotes A year on, Saudi Arabia’s presence at Cannes is more subdued — and we should applaud that

28 May 2019
Updated 28 May 2019

A year on, Saudi Arabia’s presence at Cannes is more subdued — and we should applaud that

Saudi Arabia made a huge splash at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Emerging from virtually no industry, the country swept over the French Riviera like a tsunami, and overnight became the talk of the town.

Back then, there was a lively pavilion that dwarfed all the others. Saudi filmmakers from around the world showcased their films and networked with industry leaders. The Saudi Film Council (SFC) was established, and several production and education initiatives were launched.

Things are different this year. The tone is subdued. The SFC has been reshuffled and there is no official representation. But the big concern on many people’s minds last year was precisely that things were moving too fast. How could a country possibly build an entire industry overnight? “This isn’t ‘SimCity’,” someone told me, referring to the video game. “Everything doesn’t sprout with a couple of clicks.”

Whereas last year was characterized by well-intentioned yet nebulous excitement, this year seems to be marked with reflection. This is a good thing. The greatest achievements often begin with little steps, and anything of quality takes time.

“I think that last year there was a celebration that finally Saudi entertainment is being launched from zero,” said Fadi Ismail, founder and managing director of Dubai-based DKL Studio and former group director at MBC. “There was no film industry. This was a celebration of the great intentions to start something.”

It is clear that the intention is still firmly in place. There are now 50 cinemas across the Kingdom, with more than 150 expected by year’s end. The Saudi Film Festival (Ithra) took place a couple of months ago, galvanizing regional talent with workshops, films and seminars. And at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, MBC Studios, Image Nation and VOX Cinemas announced a major partnership to develop and produce film and TV productions.

There is also the upcoming Red Sea International Film Festival, which looks very promising. Things are still mostly under wraps, but it will be held in Jeddah with the aim of featuring and developing local and regional talent, as well as having an international component.

The current low-key profile seems to suggest that the festival organizers recognize the importance of treading with considered steps and building a festival with a solid foundation. “This should be a landmark event,” said Ismail. “Things are happening. Some would like it to be faster, but maybe it’s not realistic to expect things to happen overnight.”

As with any industry in its infancy, challenges no doubt lie ahead; regulation, distribution, film education and supporting infrastructure are all things that still need work. But this is all to be expected.

“The greatest challenge is to apply paper initiatives to reality ... but the council (SFC) has a great team, and know what filmmakers and audiences want. I believe that they need just time,” said Musab Alamri, a Saudi filmmaker and PhD candidate who was one of those representing the Kingdom at Cannes last year.

Ismail said: “We have to understand how long it takes, even regionally. Look at the Indian, the Egyptian cinema — it took many years before they were fully up and running. So we can’t judge in one year if there’s a failure or regression just because there are no physical and solid achievements yet.”

Haifa Al-Mansour, a Saudi director, last year said we should give it “at least two years to see what’s happening before we assess the situation.” So maybe this time next year we will see the fruits of those efforts, or maybe longer. But as long as that intention remains, it does not really matter.