Q&A: Carla DiBello talks Maskoon, Red Sea Film Festival and Saudi Arabia’s ventures into film

Q&A: Carla DiBello talks Maskoon, Red Sea Film Festival and Saudi Arabia’s ventures into film
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Updated 04 April 2022

Q&A: Carla DiBello talks Maskoon, Red Sea Film Festival and Saudi Arabia’s ventures into film

Q&A: Carla DiBello talks Maskoon, Red Sea Film Festival and Saudi Arabia’s ventures into film
  • Arab News speaks to Maskoon producer Carla DiBello on the upcoming short film at the Red Sea International Film Festival

Arab News

How would this film starring an American in Saudi Arabia differ from any other of the types of films that are usually set with a Western protagonist inside an Arab or Middle Eastern country?

Carla DiBello  

How is it different? First of all, Paris Verra she's an aspiring actress. She's lived in LA for many years and she's been living in Saudi for the last two years. And how it's different, I would just say it's more just kind of showing people the relatability. We have our first-time Saudi director, Lina Malaika, who we've been mentoring for the last few years, collaborating with David Darg, who's an Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning director. And this is a project that we've been speaking about for a while. We've always wanted to do something in Al-Balad (in Saudi Arabia) as nothing really has ever been filmed there.

Arab News

What would you say about the location that gives it its unique filmability?

Carla DiBello  

I think the history behind it is so special. You know, being in this historical district, which is also the same place that the first ever Red Sea Film Festival is taking place in. And it's just something so magnetic about the area. So, just being able to showcase this to the world. It's kind of the old and new in Jeddah to kind of see what that contrast is. I mean, you have Formula One, where people got to really experience the corniche, and the beach and the water. But you also have this contrast of Al-Balad with so much history.

Arab News

What can you tell me about working with the Saudi director and working with the Saudi assistant directors, let's say, or crew on the ground?

Carla DiBello  

So I mean, this is something we've been really passionate about for the last probably four and a half years. So we found the first-ever Formula E documentary and Diriyah. And our structure has really been, you know, handpicking young Saudi filmmakers and young Saudi creatives to come on board with our team, which is experienced producers and directors, and really we need them and they need us. So, it's always been a very productive collaboration. Lina, specifically, we have been working with her for the last three and a half years, just kind of teaching her the business, and she's been working closely with our director. So for her, to be able to give her the ability to let this run its course, has been just exciting to watch, because she has the tools now and the experience from our Western crew in the US. So I think this is just the, you know, the beginning of a new era of how well foreign productions work with Saudi productions, crews.

Arab News

Why choose a thriller film in the beginning, rather than a different genre?

Carla DiBello  

You know, I think I think a lot of stuff that we've been doing in the Kingdom has been very, you know, documentary style. We've worked a lot with all the different ministries, from Ministry of Sports to Ministry of Culture, and we really wanted to, you know, kind of have something diversified where we can show another side of Saudi and these very rich stories that exist that maybe the outside world doesn't know about. So we're launching a platform at the end of the month called Arabia+, which will be Middle East stories told in English to a global audience. And I feel like with the 2030 vision and everything that's being developed, and how closed off the Kingdom has been for so long, it's really a great opportunity to use this platform to showcase rich stories that people don't really know exist, like Maskoon playing on the beliefs of the djinn.There's so many books around it and about it, but people from my world or coming from the UK or the US wouldn't really know these stories existed. So they are filming a lot of productions now in Saudi, which is great. But I think we're at a point now where we want to really develop homegrown stories, and work with local talent to really showcase that we have our own stories. I've been here for so long, and I've been coming to the Kingdom since 2013, and I've lived, obviously, in Dubai for the last eight years and a lot of times we bring out these huge Hollywood, big-budget productions but there's really no story about the actual location.

Arab News

Where would you kind of source these stories? Are these people who have written scripts or short narratives that you can adopt?

Carla DiBello  

What we've been doing, which is maybe not the regular way to go about it where a normal production company would actually go and source different scripts. And, you know, I think it's just been us working so well with local young filmmakers and hearing it from them, how they grew up, certain beliefs that took place in different areas. I mean, we were filming in Abha, Khamis Mushait, Rijal Almaa, all these remote places that even Saudis have never visited. So I think in every place we've been, whether it's with a tour guide, or a young kid that lives there, or a young filmmaker that we're working with, or someone on our crew, that we're really learning these stories firsthand that are actually authentic, and we just help them develop it.

 

 

Arab News

What can you tell me about the atmosphere at the first ever Red Sea Film Festival?

Carla DiBello  

Well the atmosphere was, I mean, it was definitely history in the making. I think Saudi, as a country, should be very proud. I don't think I've personally ever visited - and I've been to a lot of film festivals -  and it really reminded me of Cannes Film Festival like back in 2008. You know, where everything was just so glamorous, and that old Hollywood feeling, which I feel certain festivals have kind of shifted a bit but I think they really did a good job at getting the right people, showcasing their work and just the area alone was a historical moment. Even pulling up to the red carpet and seeing all the - before you enter Al-Balad, seeing all the old shops, where some of these these workers - because we've actually gone in and spoken to them before, have been here for 20, 30, 40 years. And for them, to be able to see limousines and black cars and women in gowns and red carpets and flashes going off which is probably like nobody could have imagined it.

Arab News

What can you tell me about what's next after Maskoon?

Carla DiBello  

So we have a few things in development. We're starting on a TV series with the Ministry of Culture called “Seven Wonders of Saudi” which we already shot a trailer to. And that's kind of, you know, a very like Anthony Bourdain-style TV series, where we kind of went around to all these different places again, like AlUla, Abha, Rijal Almaa, Al-Souda, and just speaking to the locals. There we went to Farasan Island diving, we met with a woman who's never left Farasan Island and Jizan and cooked for us in her backyard. So we're just really trying to find very authentic, rich stories to tell that have never been told before. And in March, we're planning to shoot the Formula One, again, that's taking place here. And we're really focused on Arabia+, and allowing Arabia+ to be a home for filmmakers in the Middle East to showcase their work to a global audience, as well as creating our own original content of Middle East stories told in English.

 

 

Arab News

Where and when can everyone watch the film?

Carla DiBello  

We'll have it exclusively launching after the premiere on Arabia+, so we'll be in parallel launching Arabia+, and someone can go and watch it there. It's a free streaming platform. So we'll have it there. And we have about three screenings, I believe in Vox Cinemas.

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Tarek Ali Ahmad is the head of the Arab News Research & Studies Unit and a Media Editor. He has covered the October 2019 protests in Lebanon and the country’s 2018 parliamentary elections, as well as the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos in 2020. He holds an MA in Human Rights Law from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in Media and Communication from the American University of Beirut. Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad


Twitter challenges India order to block content

Photo/REUTERS
Photo/REUTERS
Updated 06 July 2022

Twitter challenges India order to block content

Photo/REUTERS
  • The company has removed content related to anti-government farmer protests and tweets criticizing the Modi administration’s handling of the pandemic

NEW DELHI: Twitter on Tuesday challenged the Indian government in court over its recent orders to take down some content on the social media platform, media outlets reported.
The lawsuit was filed in the Karnataka High Court in southern Bengaluru city and comes after the Indian government in February warned company executives of criminal action if they failed to comply with the takedown orders, the Press Trust of India and the Bar and Bench legal news site reported.
A Twitter spokesperson, Aditi Shorewal, declined to comment or specify what type of content the company was told to block. She did not confirm that Twitter had filed the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is part of a growing confrontation between Twitter and New Delhi after the Indian government last year passed a new set of sweeping regulations giving it more power to police online content.
The new rules require companies to erase or block content that authorities deem unlawful. Under the laws, employees of social media websites and technology companies can be held criminally liable for failing to comply with the government’s orders.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to abide by the laws passed by the country’s Parliament,” India’s IT minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, told reporters Tuesday, when he was asked about the lawsuit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sought for years to control social media and has often directed Twitter to take down tweets or accounts that appear critical of his party and administration.
Twitter complied with most of those orders in the past but also resisted others and has called the new rules a “potential threat to freedom of expression.” The company has removed content related to anti-government farmer protests and tweets criticizing the Modi administration’s handling of the pandemic.
The Indian government has called the new rules necessary to tackle disinformation, hate speech and other troubles. Officials have warned Twitter that non-compliance with the rules could mean that the company would lose its liability protections as an intermediary, meaning Twitter could face lawsuits over content.
Relations between the Indian government and Twitter have been thorny since the laws were passed.
In May last year, police raided Twitter’s office after the company labelled a tweet by Modi’s party spokesman as “manipulated media.”
That same month, WhatsApp sued the Indian government to defend what it said was its users’ privacy and stop new rules that would require it to make messages “traceable” to external parties. That case is still pending in an Indian court.
Experts have criticized the new rules and said they amount to censorship. They have also accused the Modi government of silencing criticism on social media, particularly Twitter. Modi’s party denies the claim.
Police in New Delhi last week arrested a journalist over a tweet from 2018 that an anonymous Twitter user alleged was hurtful to sentiments of a “particular religion.”


VMLY&R consolidates three brands under one offering

Photo/Supplied
Photo/Supplied
Updated 05 July 2022

VMLY&R consolidates three brands under one offering

Photo/Supplied
  • VMLY&R, VMLY&R Commerce, and GTB to merge under Nick Walsh’s leadership

DUBAI: Advertising group WPP is consolidating three brands — VMLY&R, VMLY&R Commerce, and GTB — under the VMLY&R umbrella to form one, connected brand.

Nick Walsh, CEO of VMLY&R Commerce will now become the CEO of VMLY&R MENA, working closely with chief creative officer Miguel Bemfica, who joined from McCann Worldgroup in January this year.

“The three agencies bring different expertise and capabilities to the table: Creativity, commerce, experience, data, technology and more; but more importantly, they all focus on culture,” Andrew Dimitriou, EMEA CEO of VMLY&R, told Arab News.

Andrew Dimitriou, EMEA CEO of VMLY&R

He called the merger “a natural next step” that “will allow better and simpler collaboration between our brilliant client teams and capability practices and open a new world of possibilities for our clients and anyone in the business.”

In 2018, WPP merged creative agency Y&R and digital agency VML to create VMLY&R, and in 2021, Geometry was merged into the group to form VMLY&R Commerce.

Since then, “integrating the agencies’ teams and capabilities has been an ongoing global effort,” Dimitriou said.

“A deeper level of integration has happened in markets across Europe, and offices such as New York and London, as we move closer as a network to accelerate growth and future-proof our clients’ businesses,” he added.

In the region, Dubai is the “principal office” serving the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and North Africa, and “we will expand our presence on-ground in line with upcoming client’s needs and opportunities,” Dimitriou said.

Since 2020, e-commerce has seen explosive growth as brands have had to adapt to a new hybrid reality. In the UAE, 55 percent of purchases happen online through websites, social media, games, communities etc. and e-commerce spending grew at double the rate of point of sale in Q1 this year compared to the same quarter last year, he said.

Now, “the way we think about commerce is being transformed, and we’re witnessing the rise of creative commerce,” Dimitriou added.

“Creative commerce is laser-focused on generating a response, which results in conversion. And at its best, creativity turbocharges commerce, lifting a simple activation to an emotionally charged moment that drives both brand and demand.

“So, it is about inspiring conversion in the moment, regardless of channel, everywhere life intersects with commerce. It is an interaction; an experience that builds brand and demand.”

Brands not only need to stay connected with their audiences, but also remain relevant in an ever-evolving digital culture.

The hottest topic in today’s digital culture is the metaverse. By 2026, 25 percent of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, social, or entertainment, according to Gartner.

“I expect more focus — and scrutiny — on this platform as clients explore how they could leverage this new space and monitor opportunities for brand interaction and creative commerce solutions,” Dimitriou said.

He added: “At VMLY&R, we will keep our eyes on the real prize: To create connected brands through positive experiences and emotional connections powered by creativity and technology to deliver growth.”


Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech
Updated 05 July 2022

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

RIYADH: Non-fungible tokens and blockchain technologies took the world by storm, dominating everything from the art space to advertising. Web3, a new blockchain-based version of the internet, and the metaverse are still fairly new concepts, but it seems like they are here to stay with more and more people — and businesses — experimenting with them.

XGUARD, for example, is an emerging company with offices in Riyadh, Dubai and Vienna, helping organizations and individuals navigate Web3 and the virtual space “one block at a time.”

In Riyadh, the company has been actively hosting informational sessions and workshops to help equip Saudis with the skills and tools needed to venture into Web3, open their own wallet, invest in or sell NFTs, grow their businesses and engage in virtual experiences. 

XGUARD first started as a sports promotion company in Dubai. After its founder Omar Aridi began venturing into these emerging technologies, his interest in them grew.

The industry in Saudi is still at a nascent stage, Aridi told Arab News.

He said: “I was planning on working in a very decentralized way. Saudi wasn’t just my focus, but then after reading the market and seeing how things are going, I think Saudi has the most appetite when it comes to [this space].” 

Just last month, the Saudi Tourism Ministry and Saudi Tourism Authority created NFT souvenirs that were presented to the heads of delegations participating in the 116th session of the UN World Tourism Organization executive council, held in Jeddah.

“Vision 2030 and the whole direction of digital transformation and blockchain technologies and artificial intelligence — this makes it the perfect platform for us,” Aridi said. “The only bottleneck that we had were the cryptocurrency regulations, which I know are on the way. I think it’s better to be the first movers from now and the first adopters. When things get regulated, we know we will be the go-to consulting company here.”

Since cryptocurrencies are the most commonly used mode of payment in the metaverse, their lack of regulation has resulted in businesses being wary of entering this space. 

“The lack of trust comes from the lack of regulation, not from the technology,” Aridi said. “You need to pay with cryptocurrency, and that is the element that has not yet been regulated.”

In the Gulf region, the UAE has been spearheading the regulation of NFTs and cryptocurrencies by issuing the first cryptocurrency law and establishing the Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority.

For businesses, enterprise NFT technologies themselves are key. “It brings a very well authenticated ownership documented on the blockchain. Nobody can erase it, and nobody can penetrate it,” Aridi said. 

In certain industries, having verified proof of ownership and secured data records can cut down on processing time, reduce fraud and error risks, provide immutable authenticity of products, manage critical data and ease the supply chain process.

Although the NFT, bitcoin and Ethereum markets are currently down as a result of cryptocurrencies crashing, Aridi is optimistic. “​​This is very good because the market has to [course] correct,” he said. “Hopefully, only the few proper solid value propositions will be sustained and XGUARD will be one of those because we are thinking of NFTs as a technology, not as a hype.” 

XGUARD provides companies with Web3 consulting, marketing, art and blockchain development, all under one roof. “In terms of competition, I don’t see anyone offering the value proposition that we provide, which is advisory, A-to-Z solutions. Nobody in Saudi Arabia is doing that yet,” said Aridi. 

For now, the company is adopting a predominantly educational approach. It has collaborated with local spaces and businesses, such as AlMashtal Creative Space in Riyadh and The Music Space in Jeddah, to build communities across the country. 

“We have a lot of artists, in Saudi Arabia specifically, that really want to be heard, that really want to improve their business,” Aridi said. “For entrepreneurs, if they have an idea, we sit with them, we scope it, we shape it, we come up with a strategy together and we help them launch it. The idea is to basically create success stories.”


TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists
Updated 05 July 2022

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists
  • Activists accuse TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising

PARIS: Rights activists on Tuesday accused social media giant TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising.
TikTok said it would change its policy next week to allow data to be gathered from over-18s in Europe whether or not they had consented, claiming the move was allowed under Europe’s data protection law (GDPR).
But digital rights group Access Now wrote to the company asking for clarity on the legal basis, calling it a “clear abuse” of several European laws including GDPR.
“TikTok wants to strip away the rights of people who use the platform to bump its ad revenue,” said Estelle Masse of Access Now.
Masse said other social media platforms also had problems with their consent mechanisms but TikTok was “taking a step further” by “effectively suggesting that we should not have a say in deciding how our information is used.”
Social media firms gather vast troves of data on individuals’ online habits and use it to sell highly targeted advertising.
But the GDPR forces firms to give detailed justifications for gathering data, something social media platforms have struggled to do.
TikTok has said its policy change relies on a principle in the GDPR called “legitimate interest,” which allows companies to process data without giving a specific justification.
However, regulators have already begun to limit the use of legitimate interest.
They ruled in February that websites relying on the principle to opt-in users to targeted advertising were acting illegally.
AFP has asked TikTok for a response to the criticism.
TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is Chinese, is also under pressure from lawmakers in the United States over its use of data after reports suggested it allowed its staff in China to access data on US-based users.
The social media company confirmed the reports last week in a letter to US Congress but said it would never allow Communist Party officials to access data on US users.


UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media
Updated 05 July 2022

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media

UK announces new measures to curb ‘state-linked’ disinformation on social media
  • Social media firms must tackle material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign state

LONDON: The UK government revealed on Monday that social media firms will face hefty fines if they fail to curb “state-linked” disinformation, particularly from the Kremlin, as part of its forthcoming Online Safety Bill.

According to the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, social media companies will be legally obligated to “proactively” prevent and remove attempts by Russia and other countries to interfere with the UK’s political system. 

This means that social media firms must tackle material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of a foreign state that is designed to influence democratic processes.

If they fail to tackle such content, Ofcom, the UK’s communication regulator, will have the power to fine social media firms up to 10 percent of their global annual turnover. 

“The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponize social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions often targeting the very victims of its aggression,” Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said. 

“We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets [to use] the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded,” she added. “That’s why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.”

The new laws come as part of the UK government’s overhaul of the national security laws that will make foreign interference a criminal offense with a maximum jail sentence of 14 years.

As per the new Online Safety Bill, foreign interference will become one of 10 online criminal offenses, alongside child abuse, revenge porn, terrorism, fraud, promotion of people smuggling and sexual exploitation. 

Security Minister Damian Hinds highlighted: “Online information operations are now a core part of state threats activity. The aim can be variously to spread untruths, confuse, undermine confidence in democracy, or sow division in society.”

The Online Safety Bill is expected to become law by the end of the year.

Last week, Ofcom found that young people do not report harmful content as much as they encounter it on social media platforms. 

According to the research, 67 percent of people aged between 13 and 24 had seen potentially harmful content online, but only 17 percent reported it.