Why interest in Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry has exploded

Special Film has enjoyed a huge revival in Saudi Arabia sInce the decades-long ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018, and as part of the Vision 2030 reform agenda huge investments are being made to turn the country into a film powerhouse. (Supplied)
Film has enjoyed a huge revival in Saudi Arabia sInce the decades-long ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018, and as part of the Vision 2030 reform agenda huge investments are being made to turn the country into a film powerhouse. (Supplied)
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Updated 18 February 2022

Why interest in Saudi Arabia’s emerging film industry has exploded

Film has enjoyed a huge revival in Saudi Arabia sInce the decades-long ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018, and as part of the Vision 2030 reform agenda huge investments are being made to turn the country into a film powerhouse. (Supplied)
  • As the Kingdom pushes its Vision 2030 agenda, it is aiming to become the Middle East’s film-production powerhouse
  • International producers and Hollywood studios are flocking to the Kingdom to strike deals in a fertile new market

DUBAI: A husband and wife fight as their marriage deteriorates and their home is overtaken by “evil spirits.” A bride disappears during her wedding, leaving her guests waiting and her mother in meltdown. A pregnant woman tries to distinguish reality from dreams, drug-induced delusion and perceptions of death.

These are just some of the enticing story lines of recent Saudi movie releases. The last of these, “Rupture,” is a film by Hamzah K. Jamjoom, which won top prize in the Red Sea International Film Festival’s Saudi film category in December.

Four years ago, screening such films in Saudi Arabia, where cinemas were banned for more than 30 years between 1983 until 2018, was unthinkable. But now, as the Kingdom pushes its Vision 2030 reform agenda, it is aiming to become the Middle East’s new film industry powerhouse and instill in Saudis a love of watching and making movies.

So far, the plan is working. International producers and Hollywood studios are flocking to the Kingdom to produce films and strike deals in a fertile new market. Cinemas are seeing exponential growth as screens open and Saudi households flock to theaters. According to Comscore, box-office market revenues in Saudi Arabia rose to $238 million in 2021 — a 95 percent increase from 2020.

Importantly, there are now numerous incentives for young Saudi filmmakers to develop their craft at home. The Saudi government is investing billions in building a film industry with international and regional ambitions.

During the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah in December, the Ministry of Investment announced that the Kingdom would support the production of 100 films by 2030.




A Saudi film fan taking a selfie next to a sign showing the logo of the Red Sea Film Festival last year at the entrance of old Jeddah. (AFP/File Photo)

For many young Saudis this is a dream come true — even if they cannot quite believe their eyes. Until 2018, aspiring filmmakers often had to shoot in secret, dodging religious police to do so. The challenges became so frustrating for many with ambitions that they left to produce films and build careers abroad.

“Saudi filmmakers have always been there, fascinated by storytelling, but it is so fresh that film is now becoming an industry in Saudi Arabia,” Sarah Taibah, a Saudi actress and film writer, told Arab News.

“This is now a surreal dream that has now actually become a reality and I am so glad to be part of this industry at this early stage. People are now hungry to hear our stories.”

The boom is prompting many Saudi filmmakers and professionals who have been based and working abroad for years to come home and work in their own country. Ahd Kamel, 41, a well-known actress and filmmaker, is one of them.

“There was a ban on films my entire lifetime — it was taboo,” Kamel told Arab News. “When I started doing films I was told: ‘Absolutely, not. This is not something you can do.’ I had to define myself as a filmmaker on the other side of the river. It’s been 40 years of my life. It’s baffling, amazing and wonderful. When you are young you are pigeon-holed about what is happening but now, I can see that in a lifetime, things can really change.” 




As the Kingdom pushes its Vision 2030 reform agenda, it is aiming to become the Middle East’s new film industry powerhouse and instill in Saudis a love of watching and making movies. (AFP/File Photo)

In 2012, Kamel played a conservative teacher in the film “Wadjda,” which was directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first Saudi feature directed by a woman and the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. Kamel is now preparing to shoot a new film in the Kingdom about her family’s driver, who died recently.

Mona Khashoggi, a film and theater producer who was based in London for 20 years, has now returned to her hometown of Jeddah to take part in what amounts to a cultural revolution.

“Even when we didn’t have cinemas, we are all very cultured and many Saudis had cinemas in their homes,” she told Arab News. “What I want to see in Saudi films is not films about oppression that the West is expecting and stereotyping but stories about the youth and women who are now building their lives in this new reality in the Kingdom.”

A major attraction for foreign investors is the fact that 70 percent of the Kingdom’s 34 million population is under the age of 30 and have money to spend. Telfaz 11, a studio specializing in locally relevant content and Saudi Arabia’s youth culture, is growing rapidly thanks to internal and foreign investment.

Alaa Yousef Fadan, Ali Al-Kalthami and Ibrahim Al Khairallah founded Riyadh-based Telfaz 11 just over 10 years ago, and immediately set about revolutionizing content creation for young people via YouTube.

INNUMBERS

* 138 Films screened at Red Sea International Film Festival in December 2021.

* 60 Countries whose films were shown at Red Sea International Film Festival.

* 36 Saudi-made films shown at Saudi Film Festival in Jeddah in July 2021.

In November 2020, Telfaz 11 struck a deal with Netflix to produce eight feature films as the streaming platform sought to break into the Middle Eastern market. Then, in December, Telfaz 11 secured a multimillion-dollar funding line from a consortium of high-profile local financiers.

It acquired Last Scene Films, a production house also based in Riyadh, and is setting up Wadi Cinema, an independent cinema house in a joint venture with Muvi Cinema, the first home-grown cinema brand in the Kingdom.

The company has big ambitions. Faden says he and his partners will use the latest funding “to build its development and production slate ... . The company’s focus is to be the premiere destination for filmmakers and talent throughout the world.”

The changes are nothing short of revolutionary. Cinema, however, was not completely foreign to the Kingdom, even in the days when it was banned. Film fans remained determined to watch movies in the company of fellow enthusiasts.

The Saudi Film Festival, which will in its eighth edition in June 2022, was founded in Dammam in Eastern Province in 2008 by Ahmed Al-Mulla and colleagues at the local Literature Club.




The picturesque landscape of AlUla has seen it grow into an exotic filming destination, with Film AlUla providing an ecosystem of skilled professionals for both domestic productions, and international film projects. (Supplied)

“A lot of people in the 1980s and 1990s, like me, loved cinema, but didn’t have cinema in public to watch,” Al-Mulla recalled.

When Al-Mulla became a member of the board of the Literature Club, he began discussing with other members how to screen films. For nearly two years, they managed to discreetly screen films, including local productions, every Sunday night.

“We had many clashes with the other side who believed cinema was forbidden,” he told Arab News. “But we believed we had the right to see movies, and this is part of our culture and part of our mandate as the Literature Club.”

In 2016, two years before cinemas were officially reopened in the Kingdom, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture joined the club as a strategic partner and, since then, the Saudi Arabian Society of Culture and Arts has organized the Saudi Film Festival.

The current wave of producers, writers and actors have much to thank the enthusiasts in Dammam for in keeping cinema alive and nurturing early pioneers in domestic filmmaking.




Saudi actor Saed Khader (C) waves his award for at the opening ceremony of the fourth Saudi Film Festival held in Dammam City. (AFP/File Photo)

“It was all done underground,” said Al-Mulla. “There were no opportunities then to film or get financing. Everything depended on the individual.”

Last but not certainly not the least, cinema’s comeback in Saudi Arabia has given women, who now have many more freedoms than they did previously, a much stronger voice.

“Over the last few years, I have been getting more requests to do films about Saudi women,” Taibah, the actress, told Arab News.

“People want films by Saudi women that tell stories about Saudi women. This is all very fresh. I feel so blessed it is finally happening, because no one tells our story better than us.”


Saudi Arabia’s DGDA announces its official opening to the public on Dec. 4

Saudi Arabia’s DGDA announces its official opening to the public on Dec. 4
Updated 14 sec ago

Saudi Arabia’s DGDA announces its official opening to the public on Dec. 4

Saudi Arabia’s DGDA announces its official opening to the public on Dec. 4
  • DGDA Group CEO Jerry Inzerillo told Arab News: “Three hundred years ago, the birthplace of the Kingdom was Turaif

RIYADH: The Diriyah Gate Development Authority has announced the official opening of the UNESCO World Heritage site At-Turaif and the Bujairi Terrace to the public on Dec. 4.

The DGDA on Monday held a special gala dinner at Bujairi Terrace for a number of World Travel and Tourism Council delegates who were present in Riyadh for the 22nd WTTC Global Summit.

The summit is taking place for the first time in the Kingdom in Riyadh from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1 at the King Abdulaziz International Conference Center.

Uniting a wide range of key industry players, this year’s edition of the WTTC Summit showcased Saudi Arabia’s pioneering efforts to reshape the world’s tourism map in a still-recovering, post-COVID world. As one of the industry’s largest events, the annual forum aspires to implement travel sustainability on a global scale.

The At-Turaif and Bujairi Terrace opening gala dinner was attended by Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb, Chair of WTTC Arnold Donald, President and CEO of WTTC Julia Simpson, Group Chief Executive Officer of DGDA Jerry Inzerillo, and a broad list of other high profile industry leaders.

In the upcoming week, visitors will have the opportunity to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of At-Turaif, the home of the first Saudi State, and dine at some of the world’s finest Michelin-star restaurants at the Bujairi Terrace.

Visitors will take a step back in time as they walk through the mudbrick palaces and pathways of At-Turaif that perfectly highlight the traditional Najdi architecture.

As a part of its opening, At-Turaif will offer 75-minute guided walking tours in both Arabic and English that will take visitors through the original seat of power, built in the 1700s, of the Kingdom’s Al-Saud family.

Upon its opening, visitors will be able to explore At-Turaif's Salwa Palace, a 10,000-square-meter complex whose first phases were built by Mohammed ibn Saud, the first ruler of the First Saudi State.

At-Turaif's palaces, pathways and detailed carvings in the Najdi architecture provide a glimpse into the past and a reminder of the origin of Saudi Arabia.

Along with the announcement of At-Turaif's opening, the DGDA will also host a variety of activities for the public, including theatrical performances, an Arabian horse show, calligraphy sessions, mudbrick-making shows and Saudi coffee experiences.

On Al-Nuzul Street, 13 buildings will host daily immersive theatrical performances that will take visitors back in time to experience life in At-Turaif during the First Saudi State.

Following the opening At-Turaif, Diriyah is also set to host a calendar full of events and activities for the public during the winter 2022 season.

Bujairi Terrace is also set to open its doors to the public on Dec. 4 with the aim of becoming the foremost luxury dining destination in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Located in Wadi Hanifah, Bujairi Terrace will offer 20 restaurants and coffee shops, several of which are Michelin-star restaurants, including Chez Bruno, Hakkasan, Long Chim and Tatel, overlooking At-Turaif.

Some of the international brands located in Bujairi Terrace include Angelina, Brunch & Cake, Café De Lésplanade, Cova / Cova Pasticceria, Flamingo Room, Joe & the Juice, Sarabeth’s and Villa Mamas.

Some of the local brands include TAKYA, Altopiano, Somewhere / Somewhere Dessert Bae, Sum + Things, and Hi.

Built from the same mud, water and straw used to construct At-Turaif, Bujairi Terrace will merge culture, history and luxury through live shows, historical programs, interactive entertainment and traditional performances from Saudi artists and musicians.

Earlier this week, some 1,500 employees at the DGDA put their signatures on mud bricks to be used to restore At-Turaif, the original home of the Saudi royal family and the country’s first capital.

DGDA Group CEO Jerry Inzerillo told Arab News: “Three hundred years ago, the birthplace of the Kingdom was At-Turaif. We give all our love and praise to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman, to restore At-Turaif, which was built by Saudis brick by brick, but no one knows their names.

“Now we are building the new Diriyah, transforming it, using the same material, same mud, same straw, same palm trees, but now we know everybody’s name.

“So the next 300 years of this will be built by all these people and will remain very emotional and very special to them.”

The DGDA aims to develop the birthplace of the Kingdom into a world-class tourism, entertainment and cultural destination. Upon its completion, Diriyah will be a $50 billion giga-project featuring some of the world’s most luxurious restaurants and hotels built in the traditional Najdi architectural style.

This is merely the first phase of Diryah’s opening. Once complete, Diriyah will offer more than 150 fine-dining restaurants and premium cafes, 28 luxury hotels and resorts, and 400 luxury and lifestyle brands.

 


Princess Seetah bint Abdulaziz Award to launch Derayah Forum next year

Fahad Al-Maghlouth, Secretary-General of the award committee. (Photo/Saad Al-Dossari)
Fahad Al-Maghlouth, Secretary-General of the award committee. (Photo/Saad Al-Dossari)
Updated 9 min 8 sec ago

Princess Seetah bint Abdulaziz Award to launch Derayah Forum next year

Fahad Al-Maghlouth, Secretary-General of the award committee. (Photo/Saad Al-Dossari)
  • The forum targets citizens and residents in the Kingdom, including families, specialists and institutions — governmental, civil and non-profit

RIYADH: The Princess Seetah bint Abdulaziz Award for Excellence in Social Work announced it will hold the Derayah Forum under the title “What if…How do you act?” for three days beginning Jan. 3, 2023.

Over 60 government and private institutions will participate.

Dr. Fahad Al-Maghlouth, secretary-general of the award, said that the aim of the forum is to improve the quality of life through a positive social environment based on awareness, prevention and intervention.

Prince Saud bin Fahad bin Abdullah bin Mohammad bin Saud Al Kabeer, Vice Chairman of the Executive Committee and member of the Board of Trustees for the award. (Photo/Saad Al-Dossari)

The forum seeks to achieve its objectives by enabling individuals to navigate life’s challenges through awareness-raising workshops on security and safety, financial planning, information technology, legal matters and psychological health, among other topics.

The forum targets citizens and residents in the Kingdom, including families, specialists and institutions — governmental, civil and non-profit.  

Prince Saud bin Fahad bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud Al-Kabeer, vice chairman of the executive committee and member of the award’s board of trustees, described the forum as empowering, stating that it will equip people with basic knowledge and skills to face obstacles with competence and confidence.

It will also introduce them to their legal rights recognized by the Kingdom and contribute to achieving Vision 2030 goals by raising the quality of life.

 

 


World-class line-up of speakers announced for Riyadh Philosophy Conference

Dr. Mohammed Hassan Alwan. (Supplied)
Dr. Mohammed Hassan Alwan. (Supplied)
Updated 20 min 9 sec ago

World-class line-up of speakers announced for Riyadh Philosophy Conference

Dr. Mohammed Hassan Alwan. (Supplied)
  • Dr. Mohammed Hassan Alwan, the commission’s CEO, told Arab News: “Its influence goes beyond academic communities with this year’s topic showing the philosophical link between knowledge and exploration

RIYADH: In international line-up of top speakers has been announced for the second annual Riyadh Philosophy Conference, starting on Thursday.

The Saudi Literature, Publishing, and Translation Commission revealed the influential names due to address the three-day gathering at the King Fahad National Library.

The event, which runs until Dec. 3, aims to tackle issues affecting the future of humanity with intellectuals, philosophers, scientists, writers, and historians from around the world exploring a range of topics under the title, “Knowledge and Exploration: Space, Time, and Humanity.”

Speakers will include Alejandra de la Merced Fernandez, from the Universidad Nacional del Nordeste in Argentina, Joseph Cohen, associate professor of philosophy at University College Dublin, Norbert Frischauf, chief technologist and partner at SpaceTec and founder of the Austrian Space Forum, Nicolas de Warren, research professor of philosophy at Penn State University in the US, and Dr. Bjoern Gerd Freter, lecturer in world philosophy at the SOAS University of London.

Regional philosophers addressing the conference will include Abdullah Almutairi, head of the Saudi Philosophy Association, Dalia Toonsi, the founder and general manager of the Baseera educational consultancy, and Mishaal Ashemimry, special adviser to the chief executive officer of the Saudi Space Commission and the first female aerospace engineer among Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Dr. Mohammed Hassan Alwan, the commission’s CEO, told Arab News: “Its influence goes beyond academic communities with this year’s topic showing the philosophical link between knowledge and exploration.

“It highlights philosophy as a field of study that is relevant not only to philosophers but scientists, historians, and astronomers.”

This year’s theme was chosen by the commission to create a convergence of science and philosophy. Discussion topics will include ethics in exploration, the dilemmas of artificial intelligence, the complexities of space diplomacy, and how these issues will shape the future of humanity.

Alwan said: “I am delighted to see a roster of world-renowned academics, scientists, and philosophers at the forefront of their fields, speaking at the second-ever Riyadh Philosophy Conference.

“We look forward to seeing them lead pioneering conversations to address the countless questions that arise from the rapid scientific development we see in society today.

“We hope that the outcomes and discussions taken from this will be used to ensure a positive impact on humanity,” he added.

The conference will feature lectures, panels, discussions, seminars, and workshops designed to be inclusive and open. There will also be activities and workshops for young people, including a debating competition for college students.

The event will also provide a chance for young people to engage in discussion with international academics, along with a space for children and young adults to engage in critical thinking activities around the theme of the conference.

 


Saudi Fashion Commission discusses sustainability with industry leaders

Saudi Fashion Commission discusses sustainability with industry leaders
Updated 28 November 2022

Saudi Fashion Commission discusses sustainability with industry leaders

Saudi Fashion Commission discusses sustainability with industry leaders
  • Commission announces launch of new center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology focused on sustainability in textile science

RIYADH: The Saudi Fashion Commission hosted a virtual meeting on Thursday with experts and entrepreneurs to discuss sustainability in fashion.

The public was invited to attend the event, which examined the concept of sustainability and its role in the sector, as well as sustainability strategies and initiatives. 

During the meeting, the commission expressed its aim to support and stimulate the fashion community while also improving all stages of production involved in the industry, from design to product sustainability. 

It also said that it is working on several sustainability initiatives such as the second edition of its “GFX Swap Shop Riyadh” and the launch of a new center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to innovate sustainable solutions and technologies in textile science. 

The virtual meeting is part of a series of meetings organized by the commission to establish the best standards and practices to promote the Kingdom’s fashion sector.

 


Austrian Embassy in Riyadh hosts concert promoting cultural diplomacy 

Austrian Embassy in Riyadh hosts concert promoting cultural diplomacy 
Updated 28 November 2022

Austrian Embassy in Riyadh hosts concert promoting cultural diplomacy 

Austrian Embassy in Riyadh hosts concert promoting cultural diplomacy 
  • The concert featured performances by violinist Daniel Auner, his mother Irina Auner, who played the piano, and Ehab Abdin, who played the oud
  • The guest list comprised a diverse group of figures from music lovers to professionals in the cultural sectors of Saudi Arabia, from ambassadors to influencers

RIYADH: Austrian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Georg Postinger hosted the concert “Orient meets Occident,” blending Saudi and Austrian influences in a night of music and cultural celebration, on Sunday in Riyadh.

The concert featured performances by violinist Daniel Auner, his mother Irina Auner, who played the piano, and Ehab Abdin, who played the oud. 

“We are witnessing something that is a little bit of an attempt at something new,” Austrian Ambassador Georg Postinger told Arab News of the concert, which he described as a “merger” between East and West. 

The ambassador stressed the importance of holding events that promote cultural understanding and cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Austria. 

“You can kind of describe it as cultural dialogue,” Postinger said.

The concert began with classical Austrian music, which was followed by traditional Arabic sounds with oud player Abdin.

The guest list comprised a diverse group of figures from music lovers to professionals in the cultural sectors of Saudi Arabia, from ambassadors to influencers.  

The Auner mother-son duo played music from Fritz Kreisler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with each performance followed by an explanation of the history and inspiration behind the music.

Following the Austrian set, Abdin performed traditional Saudi oud music, playing Farid Al-Atrash’s “Albi wa Muftahu” and Salim Al-Masri’s “Lamma Bada Yatathana,” among other pieces. The performance was met with a standing ovation from the audience.

“It’s a very wonderful feeling performing here, especially with the beautiful response from the audience,” Abdin said. 

Postinger said that the Austrian Embassy aims to continuously host events that promote cultural exchange and cooperation.