DUBAI: You may not have felt it, but there has been a seismic shift in Saudi Arabia. Saudi animator Malik Nejer has certainly felt it. Audiences across the Kingdom have decided that international content is now secondary; Saudi voices are ready to lead the conversation. In cinemas, a Saudi film continues to break record after record and, on streaming, Nejer’s own creation “Masameer County” is set to rocket up the charts as its acclaimed second season debuts on Netflix.
“You can really feel the change. In the past, we’ve always had trouble with investors because they were so cynical about Saudi films. They’d ask us, ‘How is this going to go up against a Disney or Marvel film?’ Now, they know Saudi content can take on anything,” says Nejer.
He gets the skepticism, though. Long before Nejer created “Masameer,” he, too, was cynical about the film and television produced in the Kingdom.
“Let’s say we put film and TV into a classification system, going from ‘Class A’ to ‘Class D.’ Below that, you have the stuff stuck to the bottom of the barrel that you scrape off at the end, throw at the screen, and hope someone will watch it. For the longest time, Saudi shows fell into that latter category,” jokes Nejer.
This is years of frustration talking. As a child, he would spend his time watching international cartoons, and when he’d switch to Saudi programming, he could find nothing except for, in his own words, “cheesy and ridiculous soap operas.”
“These characters were not representative of the average Saudi person,” he says. “I just wanted characters to have normal conversations, who are probably as foul-mouthed as regular people. Deep down, I wanted to drop all the ‘Days of our Lives’ stuff and flip it into a freaking Tarantino film.”
It was the early Nineties, and Nejer was growing up in a much more conservative society than had the man in his life he admired most, his grandfather. Things in the Kingdom had changed in the 1970s, and the restrictions on so much of life back then weighed on a young Nejer. He was being told one thing at home and another outside of it, and he had trouble reconciling the two worldviews.
“My grandfather was a foul-mouthed old man, who was also a very nice old man, with a code of ethics. Then I went to school and they told me anyone with a foul mouth is evil. It just didn’t line up for me. The best guy I knew was my grandfather, and so I didn’t listen to them. I became foul-mouthed too,” he says, then quickly clarifies: “(I don’t use that to) attack people, but it’s definitely how I express myself.”
It’s the way he wanted his characters to talk, too. His journey into animation started as a kid growing up in the small town of Dawadmi, Saudi Arabia, a three-hour drive from Riyadh.
“I loved cartoons, but no one could tell me how cartoons were made. I started experimenting with paper, drawing stick figures, and accidentally made a flipbook one day. No one had taught me how, but I stumbled upon it. In that moment, I was hooked. I said to myself, ‘I love this. I want to do more,’” says Nejer.
Nejer spent all his free time continuing to experiment, getting in trouble with his brothers because he stole their schoolbooks to make more drawings when he ran out of paper of his own. When he got to the age where he could choose an educational path, he looked for a university that offered animation in the Kingdom in 2004, only to find nothing.
“The closest I could find was a College of Education where I could train to be a teacher and, as part of that, I could learn to become an art teacher,” Nejer says. “I ended up studying law, of all things.”
He dropped out after two years and went into advertising, figuring that he might at least have the opportunity to draw. He was able to take a course in Flash animation, and when YouTube started to become ubiquitous in 2009, he uploaded his first short film. Two days later, he got a call from the director of a sketch comedy show at MBC, asking if he would like to contribute shorts.
By 2010, as much as he enjoyed his work on the show, he found himself gravitating less and less towards television and more towards YouTube — finding original shows by Saudi creators popping up every day.
“They were different — genuine, fun, and interesting to watch,” he says. “I said, ‘I need to do a show on YouTube, too.’ So I quit my job at MBC, and started working on that. Within a year, I started putting out ‘Masameer,’ and the first episode had 100,000 views in the first week. It just took off,” says Nejer.
“Masameer” became a reflection of his own philosophy, full of trash-talking, taboo-breaking characters that pushed the boundaries as far as they could go while always remaining distinctly Saudi and refreshingly real.
“That was the secret sauce. People tuned in because these cartoon characters spoke like their cousin, their friend, or someone they knew at work — people they’d never seen on TV. And it was YouTube — there was no one to tell us no; it was all kids hanging out on there,” says Nejer.
“Masameer” grew into a phenomenon, and when Saudi Arabia reopened its cinemas and established the makings of an official film industry, Nejer and his production company, Myrcott Animation Studio, were ready. They released a “Masameer” film in cinemas in 2020 which became a huge hit, and signed a five-year deal with Netflix, releasing the movie globally as well as rebooting the show as “Masameer County,” which continues to grow and change from its original, rough, web creation.
“With this Netflix show, we actually had to have story structure rather than just mindless comedy, and that changed things drastically,” Nejer says. “It was completely fresh, and challenged us in different ways, and that made people continue to tune in.”
Three years into the five-year deal with the streaming giant, Nejer and Myrcott are working on a number of projects that he can’t yet reveal, including theatrical projects. He will allow he’s something of a pioneer when it comes to the Saudi film and television landscape, but he doesn’t like to think about it.
“I’m more focused on just making good stuff at this point. I do want to create something that resonates with an international audience, that goes viral across the world. Saudi stories are very specific, but at the end of the day, they’re human stories, and if you do that right, that will work anywhere,” says Nejer.
“That’s my end goal, I guess. And if I ever achieve that, I’m know I’m just going to feel depressed, because then there’s nothing else to do.”