DUBAI: When Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year ban on cinemas nearly three years ago, a love affair with film was not born on that day — it was validated. Before Saudi became the only theatrical market to grow in the time of COVID-19, before its shooting locations became the talk of the filmmaking world, the Kingdom had long been home to some of the most passionate film buffs in the world, who watched films on MBC 2 day and night, who traded VHS tapes of new releases, and who, if they wanted to pursue that passion, had one choice: To make a name for themselves in Hollywood.
Mohammed Al-Turki, the renowned Saudi film producer behind such films as “Arbitrage” (2012) starring Richard Gere; “99 Homes,” (2014) starring Michael Shannon; and the upcoming “Crisis,” starring Gary Oldman, followed exactly that path.
“Even though it was outside the norms to do that as a Saudi when cinemas were banned, my family was always very supportive of my dream. When I had the opportunity to work on my first film with Zeina Durra in 2010, they pushed me to do it, thinking that it was would fulfil that hobby, then I would fail and come back home to Saudi and work a nine-to-five job,” Al-Turki tells Arab News. “Their plan didn’t work.”
As Al-Turki sat as a special guest in the audience on that historic night in Riyadh when cinemas reopened, he couldn’t help but think about the boy he had been, who first fell in love with film in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, who would rent out his VHS and LaserDiscs from his school’s parking lot, who dreamed of making his own one day, something he never thought he’d be able to do in his home country. Now, finally, that landmark on the horizon.
Al-Turki is currently working on a film about a young Saudi woman and, according to the filmmaker, it is coming together quickly.
“We’re working on it now. I'm excited about it. I know it's going to be challenging. We still need to find the perfect hero. Nevertheless, I think we will be able to come through with this. Like everything in Saudi, there is excitement around it, and the people that I'm working with want this sooner rather than later. Hopefully we'll be able to deliver within the timeframe that they want,” Al-Turki says.
The producer sounds a bit stressed, and that’s understandable. The current pace in the Saudi film world, according to Al-Turki, is frenetic.
“Everybody is looking at Saudi right now — in terms of film — as the land of opportunity. The competition is high. It's great, but the challenge has become way tougher. Because it's a new market, it's like the Wild West, and it can be hard to know who is there for the long run, or who is in there for the short-term,” he says.
While some short-term players have popped up on a small scale, the biggest productions, and the longest-term investments, have come from the heavy hitters of both the region of the world. Saudi entertainment giant MBC has invested enormously in producing more homegrown content in the Kingdom, often competing for the same talent as global players such as Netflix, which has signed long-term deals with Saudi production companies such as Telfaz11.
“As an entertainment industry, we will see a lot of different material coming out of Saudi, so it is an exciting time. But then, it’s a big challenge for players like me who have been doing this for over a decade. Before, I had a lot of time to look at a project and to relax, but now you really need to focus and see what's next and just jump on it. You don’t have time to waste,” says Al-Turki.
He has chosen to focus on the story of a young woman because, besides being a social issue close to his heart, it’s also the issue most closely intertwined with Saudi’s burgeoning film story. It was Haifaa Al-Mansour who put modern Saudi cinema on the map with “Wadjda” in 2012 —the story of a young girl and her bicycle. And when Saudi Arabia ramped up its efforts to move the Kingdom forward, it was film and women’s rights that came to the forefront together.
“I would like to show the human aspect of Saudi Arabia, bringing human stories, simple stories, about the challenges that people face in Saudi and the region. ‘Wadjda’ was a great example, tackling a story of women back before the positive and apparent change in Saudi with Vision 2030,” says Al-Turki.
In addition, Al-Turki would like his Saudi films to follow the lessons of African-American culture in the United States, which has produced films in Hollywood that center around blue-collar and working-class folks and their everyday struggles.
“There are great films such as ‘Soul Food’ or ‘Barbershop’ that focus on everyday aspects of life in the African-American community. Saudi Arabia and the Middle East have a lot elements like that that can be portrayed in film. There are a lot of different ways to show universal elements of a particular culture that people anywhere can all relate to — in Utah, or London, or anywhere. That’s the power of cinema,” says Al-Turki.
It’s not only international filmgoers who Al-Turki believes will be interested in different kinds of Saudi stories — it’s the Saudi people themselves who he thinks are hungry for different kinds of films. One of the biggest misconceptions that Al-Turki has found is regarding the types of films that can do well in the Kingdom. In his eyes, the Saudi people have a very diverse taste, loving not only the biggest movie stars and action blockbusters, but also having an appetite for smaller, more art-focused content, that has a strong social message.
“In terms of the audience here in Saudi, I think the experience is the best in the region. People actually go to the cinema to watch films. It’s a new experience for many, of course, so they're really there to watch,” says Al-Turki.
That gives the producer hope that when his latest film “Crisis,” already an indie hit outside of the region and focusing on the horrors of the opioid epidemic in the United States, will find an audience when it opens in Saudi Arabia on April 1, the first film he’s made that he’s been able to release in his home country.
It’s a milestone he’s not taking lightly. He’s currently in the final stages of planning a red-carpet event with a Q&A involving both him and members of the cast in Riyadh.
His hope is that one of the young Saudi attendees might be inspired to pursue a similar path to his own, though they may not have to go to the other end of the earth to then eventually succeed back home.
“I think, in a few years, we will see a lot of great talents coming from Saudi,” says Al-Turki.