The rise of ‘Raven Song’ — Saudi Arabian filmmaker Mohamed Al-Salman’s debut feature 

The rise of ‘Raven Song’ — Saudi Arabian filmmaker Mohamed Al-Salman’s debut feature 
Saudi Arabian filmmaker Mohamed Al-Salman. (Supplied)
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Updated 15 December 2022

The rise of ‘Raven Song’ — Saudi Arabian filmmaker Mohamed Al-Salman’s debut feature 

The rise of ‘Raven Song’ — Saudi Arabian filmmaker Mohamed Al-Salman’s debut feature 
  • The young Saudi filmmaker’s movie is the Kingdom’s Oscars submission this year 

DUBAI: Saudi Arabian filmmaker Mohamed Al-Salman had one dream as a child: He wanted to be an engineer. How starkly things change. The 30-year-old’s debut feature, “Raven Song” was well received at this month’s Red Sea International Film Festival and is just the sixth film ever to be submitted for an Academy Award from Saudi Arabia. It marks the arrival of an artist with style, vision, and a dark sense of humor. Who knew he had it in him? Al-Salman himself certainly didn’t.  

“To be honest, I was one of maybe a few people on this earth who was not into movies as a kid. Engineering is what I was good at, and I was really enjoying it. I thought that was it for me,” Al-Salman tells Arab News. 

“In my third year, I felt I was limiting myself. I needed fresh experiences. So I joined a theater club, just to try something new. I met creatives, I started acting, and it was a true awakening. For the first time, I felt like I had activated the other side of my mind,” he continues. 

Al-Salman realized he had a lot of time to make up for. He took it upon himself to learn everything he could about the history of film, and the deeper he got, the more he uncovered about what both the medium and himself were capable of.  

“I started chatting with the people around me, and I learned the names of directors. From there, I figured out how to distinguish their styles. For each name I would hear, I would go home and watch every one of their films from the first to the last. As I went, I discovered in those films that you could be sarcastic, that you could explore philosophy and imbue deep meaning. I learned about narrative, about symbolism — tragedy and comedy both,” says Al-Salman.  

Mohamed Al-Salman (right) and lead actor Asem Alawad on the set of ‘Raven Song.’ (Supplied)

The more he watched, the more he, too, wanted to create. He started making short films, starting with 2015’s “Amongst,” and from 2017 to 2020, he made one per year. His last two shorts appeared as part of the Netflix series “Six Windows in the Desert,” produced by Saudi Arabian production company Telfaz11. 

None of this means, of course, that Al-Salman abandoned the path he had set himself on as a child. In fact, he finished his degree, and went to work as an engineer at one of the Kingdom’s biggest companies, Aramco.  

“I would take vacations to make my films. Each year, on my annual leave, that is what I would do,” he explains. 

A still from ‘Raven Song.’ (Supplied)

In fact, Al-Salman still hasn’t left Aramco behind. When it became clear that his passion for film now outweighed his passion for engineering, he switched to producing in-house content for the company.  

“Raven Song,” however, is an undertaking unlike any he has attempted before. It was inspired by the two men who, after his years of self-study, became his filmmaking heroes — Ethan and Joel Coen, better known as the Coen Brothers.  

“Raven Song is structured in a way that is not usual. It’s like Coen Brothers’ film ‘The Big Lebowski,’ in some ways. When you watch that, you realize after a while that the plot is pointless. It’s really about a guy meeting different social groups in Los Angeles and the world they have created for themselves. It’s similar in my film, though with a tone, sense of humor and spirit that’s purely Saudi Arabian,” says Al-Salman. 

Al-Salman knew he wasn’t making it easy on himself. After all, a complex structure, a passive — and at times inscrutable — main character, and a story that toys with reality are usually hallmarks of veteran directors. There was a lot of risk in not making something simple, and he knew it.  

“I was hesitant. I thought this should be my second feature. But a voice inside me told me I had to do it. At the end of the day, you don’t know how many chances you’re going to get, and I wanted to make the film that I was most passionate about. I want to make the kinds of movies I love to watch, and everyone else is invited to share that with me,” he says. I made this harder than I needed to, but it’s a film I believe in.” 

While “The Big Lebowski” is now widely considered one of the best comedies ever made, it was largely ignored upon release, even though the Coens had just come off an Academy Award for their film “Fargo.” With “Raven Song,” Salman may have the makings of a cult hit on his hands. Because although making a film that intentionally challenges its audience is always a gamble, there has never been a better time for a Saudi filmmaker to do it. As the Kingdom develops its burgeoning film industry, it’s the singular voices that are most immediately standing out from the pack.  

“I want to make every film in a way that I’m proud of. I’m building a filmography, and I will take my time in doing that,” Al-Salman says. “I concluded for myself that I’m not going to be a director-for-hire. I want to feel proud of every film I make. I want to make films that won’t be forgotten.”  

In turn, Al-Salman believes that cinema may be the best way for Saudi Arabia to finally bring to the world the experiences from years in which no films were made at all. “Raven Song” is set in 2002, for example, a formative time for Al-Salman. 

“It was a very exciting time. I remember a lot of discussions in those times, as the internet opened us up to the world and to ourselves. Everything in our lives took on different dimensions. It was integral to me to go back to explore those intellectual groups, and the way they interacted with each other,” he says. “Because it’s in there that we can see the seeds of what the country grew into today.” 

While Al-Salman has many stories he intends to explore in future films, with some projects in the works as we speak, for now he is taking stock and assessing what his first feature has already achieved, as it will provide him the platform to continue to mine the country he loves for art his heart is aching to create.  

“Being submitted to the Academy Awards makes me incredibly proud. It’s a sign that people believe in you, and trust in your vision, and it gave my entire cast and crew a sense of real validation,” says Al-Salman. “Now we can follow our vision forward.”