Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF
Mohamed Ben Attia in Paris in 2016. (Supplied)
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Updated 02 December 2023
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Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF

Award-winning filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia discusses ‘Behind the Mountains’ set to screen at RSIFF
  • The film heads to Saudi Arabia after screening at the Venice Film Festival this year
  • The director has won multiple awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and has been nominated for prizes in Venice and Chicago, among other festivals

DUBAI: Years ago, Tunisian filmmaker Mohamed Ben Attia was struck by an image he couldn’t get out of his head. It was a man running towards a cliff, and when he reached the edge, he started to fly. He knew there was greatness in it — a perfect image of freedom. He felt it could perhaps be the basis for his greatest film. But as he wrote and he wrote, nothing came of it. The emotions felt flat. It wasn’t that the idea wasn’t ready — he wasn’t ready himself.   

“I was maybe 20 years old at the time. I was childish and immature. Everything I wrote made little sense to me,” Ben Attia tells Arab News. “But when I finished my film ‘Hedi’ in 2016, the idea returned. Suddenly this idea of a man flying started appearing in my mind beside my own emotions — the rage I was feeling deep within myself. And then these feelings and that image started to blend.” 

At the start of December, “Behind the Mountains,” the result of that renewed inspiration, will screen in competition at the 2023 Red Sea International Film Festival, after receiving support from the Red Sea Fund while in production. The film made its acclaimed debut at the Venice International Film Festival in September, and as much as Ben Attia put his all into the making of the film, seeing audiences react to such a deeply personal and multifaceted movie can sometimes be painful.  




Ben Attia on set with Walid Bouchhioua, who stars as Yassine in “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

“I hate this at times, to be honest. I know I’m supposed to love it, but it can be difficult when people get so confused by watching it, trying to figure out what it’s trying to tell them,” Ben Attia says. “This is part of doing cinema — a film cannot be loved by everyone. But it’s a very strange feeling with this film particularly, because it’s hard even for me to explain the meaning of the film, as well as for many to understand what drives this character to begin with.”  

“Behind the Mountains” begins simply enough, at least. Rafik is released from a Tunisian prison, four years after his mental health issues manifested as a violent outburst in his former workplace. He now believes he can fly, and kidnaps his young son to take him to a special place behind the mountains to show him that his vision is real.  

There are many potential interpretations of this tale, but it’s hard not to draw parallels to the story of Tunisia itself, even for Ben Attia. Almost exactly 13 years ago, the Tunisian Revolution began, culminating in the ousting of the Ben Ali government and the start of a still-ongoing redrawing of the Tunisian political landscape and a reorganization of the country’s society at large.  




Ben Attia on set with Majd Mastoura, who stars as Rafik in “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

In a time of great upheaval, a world of possibility emerges. Suddenly, the future feels free — enough to make a man feel that he could fly, because perhaps he can. But is the anarchy of freedom a blessing? A curse? Both? And can anything truly change if people continue to impose the same mental shackles on themselves as they did before? It’s a complicated subject that has caused more than a few headaches, to put it lightly.  

“I would say that, since our revolution happened, the busiest people in our society have been the psychiatrists. Because it wasn’t just that things changed politically — it was also a revolution of the individual; a revolution of feeling,” Ben Attia explains. 

“The idea that this regime could change was impossible for us to imagine. So it gave us the feeling that anything could happen, even in our own lives. That’s why people started changing professions, getting divorced… That’s exactly where this film finds its characters — in moments where they come to their own realizations of possibility, their own understandings of how things can be different, for better or for worse.”  




A still from “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied) 

Ben Attia has changed a lot, too. Over the last decade, his work has captured the attention of the film community cross the world. 2016’s “Hedi” won the Best First Feature award at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival and was co-produced by the renowned Dardenne brothers. His next film, “Dear Son,” was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and was the Tunisian entry for the Best International Film category of that year’s Academy Awards.   

Part of what has kept him grounded as his star rises is his second career, the one he rarely talks about.  

“I have a strange life, to be frank. While I’m doing all of this, I’m also a chef in my family’s Italian restaurants in Tunis. I get my ideas for films when I’m working in my kitchen. It gives me balance in my own life when I have these dual identities. It takes the pressure off. When I was just doing nothing, no ideas came. I have to work in the restaurant — I have to be making pasta fresca to get a little bit inspired. It allows me to see things I couldn’t have in any other circumstance,” says Ben Attia.  

But while the kitchen is where the ideas start to flow, art is still an act of self-therapy, especially as it can often contain complex and contradictory ideas that everyday linear thought often can’t. 




A still from “Behind the Mountains.” (Supplied)

“We are living in strange times, especially with what’s happening in Gaza and everywhere else,” Ben Attia says. “It’s not just our region of the world, it’s also about the identity of the Arab people and our relation to the Occident. As an artist, that fills us with contradictions — today I think something and tomorrow I think something very different. But thankfully, we are not making science, we are making cinema. We’re still discovering what the truth could be, and what our future could be.”  

At each screening of “Behind the Mountains,” Ben Attia gets different interpretations from the audience of all the things it may be saying. And with every question, he has more time to consider what he thinks about both the work and the world he’s living in — and he hasn’t quite worked it out. But that’s the beauty of cinema, as he says, and when his next film idea comes to the boil back in his kitchen, he’s ready to see where his inspiration takes him next.  

“I’m giving myself boundaries: first, just follow the promotion of this film just to understand better what I did and how, and why I did it. Even if that hurts, it’s good to do, and it’s good to react to what happened with this film,” he says. “Even now, I have a vague idea — I have another image I’m getting ready to pursue. But I’m in no rush. I want to take my time and see if it’s still there in a few months, and if that’s the case, then I’m ready to start for sure on the right foot.” 


Saudi Cinema Encyclopedia prints first batch of film books

Saudi Cinema Encyclopedia prints first batch of film books
Updated 18 April 2024
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Saudi Cinema Encyclopedia prints first batch of film books

Saudi Cinema Encyclopedia prints first batch of film books
  • Initial run of 22 titles part of plan to release 100 books by the end of the year
  • First set of releases will be available to the public during the 10th Saudi Film Festival, held May 2-9 this year

RIYADH: The Saudi Cinema Encyclopedia, an initiative launched by the Saudi Cinema Association, will kick off with an initial release of its first 22 books, written by an international group of authors, as its first batch of publications.

The project aims to release 100 books in its first year, published by Josour Al-Thaqafah Publishing House.

The first set of releases will be available to the public during the 10th Saudi Film Festival, held May 2-9 this year.

The aim is to establish a periodic program for book production in Arabic to elevate the Kingdom’s film industry writing from amateur to an area known own for its professionalism and specialization.

Abdulwhab Aloryad, editorial director of the Saudi Cinema Encyclopedia and the bulletin of the Saudi Film Festival “Saafa,” told Arab News that the books were published to enhance knowledge among filmmakers.
“This encyclopedia aims to add to what the Saudi Film Festival has started and be an active contributor in Saudi cinema, reinforcing the beliefs of the festival organizers and their efforts to create a competitive film industry on a global level,” he said.

“The series will continue to be an icon in film knowledge, with its central goals of unveiling Saudi and Arab talent in authorship, presenting the latest new books in Arabic, and transferring specialized knowledge in this field from various other languages into Arabic to be available to those interested in the film industry.”

Aloryad said: “Since its launch in 2008, the Saudi Film Festival has believed in its authentic role in cultural and intellectual development aimed at professionals in the film industry. It has focused on the project of knowledge and has driven the wheel of authoring and translation in all fields related to the film industry in order to elevate all stages of the film industry.

“Based on this belief, the festival has adopted a periodic program for book production, presenting more than 50 books in its previous editions that shed light on various aspects of the film industry.”


REVIEW: Amazon Prime Video’s ‘Fallout’ takes gaming adaptations to next level

REVIEW: Amazon Prime Video’s ‘Fallout’ takes gaming adaptations to next level
Updated 18 April 2024
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REVIEW: Amazon Prime Video’s ‘Fallout’ takes gaming adaptations to next level

REVIEW: Amazon Prime Video’s ‘Fallout’ takes gaming adaptations to next level

LONDON: Don’t say it too loud, but we might, finally, have reached the point when good TV adaptations of hit videogames become the norm, rather than the exception. Hot on the heels of “The Last of Us” and “The Witcher” comes “Fallout,” an eight-part series based on the post-apocalyptic world explored in the series of famed Bethesda games.

In an alternate future, with the world devastated by a global nuclear war, a community of wealthy individuals retreats to a series of underground vaults to ride out the fallout. Some 200 years later, wide-eyed vault dweller Lucy (Ella Purnell) is forced to leave the safety of her underground home when her father is kidnapped by raiders from the surface, kickstarting a journey that will not only make her confront the horrors of the unlawful society above, but also sees her meet a revolving door of eccentric (yet equally horrifying) characters along the way. Among these are Maximus (Aaron Moten), a squire in the militaristic Brotherhood of Steel, and The Ghoul (Walton Goggins), a terrifyingly mutated former actor now forging his way as a bounty hunter.

The key to the success of “Fallout” is that your enjoyment of the show is not dependent on whether or not the previous paragraph made any sense to you whatsoever. Rather, creators Graham Wagner and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, along with developers (and executive producers) Christopher Nolan and Lisa Joy have taken the wise decision to create a world wherein knowledge of the wider “Fallout” universe is a bonus, but not a prerequisite. So even if this is your first introduction to the world of Pip-Boys, gulpers and Vaulters, you won’t be penalized, and you certainly won’t feel like you’re missing out.

The world of “Fallout” is a gloriously gritty, bloody and savage one, but it’s also one of razor-sharp humor and fiendish satire — not least thanks to Goggins’ phenomenal turn as The Ghoul. Acerbic and frighteningly violent, The Ghoul is the very embodiment of the savage, unforgiving wasteland, and Goggins has a blast with perhaps the role of his career to date. Lucy is the polar opposite, and Purnell is equally as great as the naïve-yet-capable young woman entirely unprepared for the muck and murder she emerges into. Throw the two together with a razor-sharp, witty script and top-drawer production values and you have a show that’s about as much fun as you can have without a controller of your own.


Saudi poet and artist Hana Almilli: ‘After each piece, there’s some sort of conclusion’ 

Saudi poet and artist Hana Almilli: ‘After each piece, there’s some sort of conclusion’ 
Updated 18 April 2024
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Saudi poet and artist Hana Almilli: ‘After each piece, there’s some sort of conclusion’ 

Saudi poet and artist Hana Almilli: ‘After each piece, there’s some sort of conclusion’ 

DUBAI: Saudi artist Hana Almilli and her two siblings grew up in a household where creativity and self-expression were actively encouraged. “My mom is a poet,” Almilli tells Arab News. “And my dad was very motivating in terms of doing photography.” Her two brothers, she adds, “are both talented in terms of music and art.” And with her Syrian maternal grandmother, Almilli shares a love of nature and of textiles. 

But aside from being one of the main inspirations behind her creative output, Almilli’s family are also the subject of most of it. Through her poetry, embroidery, weaving, dyeing and photography, she explores her own history and her diverse cultural identity (she has Saudi, Syrian, Turkish, Kurdish, and Palestinian ancestry).  

Detail from 'Memoirs 2,' which shows Almilli's maternal grandmother in Syria. (Supplied)

“It’s about me and my family history,” Almilli says of her work, which was most recently on display at Art Dubai in March. “It does really focus on heritage, history, personal narratives.  

“Being from all these different identities, it’s always been important to be a part of those cultures,” she continues. “They’re all very different. And sitting with each and every grandparent, which I’ve had the privilege of doing, you learn so much. Growing up I’d have Turkish lullabies from my Turkish grandma, Kurdish news on the televsion that my grandpa would translate. My memory’s not great, but those specific moments from my childhood still remain; I still write about them and I’m still inspired by them. And I still want to almost recreate them in my work.” 

Aside from her family history, the other major theme running through Almilli’s work is alienation or estrangement (as made clear in the title of her ongoing series “The Echoes of My Alienation”). That may seem odd in someone who talks so warmly of her close and nurturing family ties, but those same ties could, perhaps, have been one of the causes of her alienation. 

'A fragile dawn, a floating wish, a fleeting farewell' on display at SAMOCA. (Supplied)

It really began when she moved to the US to attend the California College of the Arts in 2014. Initially, she was studying architecture, but, “I just hated it. I couldn’t express myself in any way that I wanted to.” She shifted courses, eventually graduating with a focus on textiles and creative writing, the latter allowing her to build on her poetry writing, which began as a teenager with verses that were “hidden under the bed — ‘No one’s looking at this.’” 

It was towards the end of her college years that she began “The Echoes of My Alienation,” although the emotions it explores had surfaced almost as soon as she arrived in the States.  

“My first day in the US, there was an earthquake, and I’d never experienced an earthquake. So it was almost like the beginning of this trial of alienation,” Almilli says. “I was, like, ‘I don’t know if this is for me.’ So persevering, and staying there for five years, was an interesting experience. It grew that alienation. And I wouldn’t say it has dissipated. It still stays, because if it doesn’t then that curiosity about finding out where I come from is gone.” 

The series features a number of different works, including several self-portraits and images of family members embellished with embroidery. 

“You can see the pieces are obsessively embroidered with little maps. I was almost mapping myself out — those identities that have always been a part of my life but that, to some extent, I had lost as I travelled to the US and was far from home. My grandma had Alzheimer’s at the time, too, so that history was lost with her. My grandpa had passed away in the first year I was in the US as well, so there’s this aspect of rediscovering and recreating history through myself in self-portraits.” 

 'Languages Interlacing 2,' one of Almilli's self-portraits. (Supplied)

The “most emotional” section of the series, she says, is “Memoirs.” In “Memoirs 2” Almilli has embroidered delicate jasmine flowers over an image of her maternal grandmother in Syria, standing among trees.  

“It’s the same technique I use every time, but I intuitively highlight specific parts of an image, whether it’s to hide or accentuate,” Almilli explains. “My grandma and I have a great connection with flowers.” 

As she explored working with textiles, Almilli also developed her poetry skills. She has even published the poems that she once hid under her bed.  

“At art school, you don’t really have that fear of exposing yourself, because everyone is. So I found the courage to take part in this school publication that went around California as well. That really re-started everything in terms of writing and, ever since, every piece I make has been inspired by a written poem.  

“Usually, my works are unique pieces representing a story, or a dream, or someone,” she continues. “It’s interesting, because nowadays, with contemporary art, you’re meant to look at it and make your own sense of it. But, to me, it’s important to know the story of what happened. Being able to write, as an artist, is very important for me because it gives context to my work — what it represents, what it feels like.” She cites her piece on display at the Saudi Arabia Museum of Contemporary Art — “A fragile dawn, a floating wish, a fleeting farewell.” “That was initially a long poem that got turned into an embroidered piece that has the poetry within it,” she explains. 

With so many different outlets for her creativity, her mind must be constantly churning with ideas, which seems like it could get exhausting, I suggest. But Almilli, who returned to Saudi Arabia in 2019, explains that she’ll often take a lengthy break after finishing a piece or a series. 

“After each piece, there’s some sort of conclusion,” she says. “For example, the piece I just spoke about talks about how, in my dreams, I meet people I’ve loved, but they’re forever drowning in my dreams. Like, my grandma had Alzheimer’s for a few years and we couldn’t get her to Saudi. It’s almost like the only connection I had with her was when she showed up in my dreams. And to be able to write that and grasp it, and put it into something that is physical… it’s very difficult, in the beginning, because you’re facing the idea of that loss in the future, but after that comes a conclusion of sorts: ‘Now I understand these emotions.’ I try to think about what I wrote when I’m making each piece, and — if it’s a difficult piece — to try and heal from it in the process. That difficult feeling becomes something you can bear, whatever it might be.” 

And even though her pieces are so personal, Almilli has found her work connects with people on a very emotional level.  

“As much as my stories are about my personal history, and my family’s oral history and heritage, at the end of the day there are a lot of people that feel an alienation, or a craving after the loss of a person for that person. So they are stories that people can relate to,” she says.  

“I cherish my pieces so much. It’s very difficult for me to let go of them, but I’ve grown to understand that it’s really about being able to share that story with people and show them that there are others going through that,” she continues. “It’s beautiful too, because I hear stories from others that they’ve never spoken about. It’s important, because it shows them that you can embrace multiple aspects of yourself, and that’s OK.”  


‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side

‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side
Updated 17 April 2024
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‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side

‘Suffs’ musical with Malala, Hillary as producers has timing on its side
  • ‘Suffs’ is a Broadway musical that focuses on the American women’s suffrage movement
  • Pakistani Nobel laureate says musical helped her see her activism from a “new lens“

NEW YORK: Shaina Taub was in the audience at “Suffs,” her buzzy and timely new musical about women’s suffrage, when she spied something that delighted her.
It was intermission, and Taub, both creator and star, had been watching her understudy perform at a matinee preview last week. Suddenly, she saw audience members searching the Wikipedia pages of key figures portrayed in the show: women like Ida B. Wells, Inez Milholland and Alice Paul, who not only spearheaded the suffrage fight but also wrote the Equal Rights Amendment ( still not law, but that’s a whole other story).
“I was like, that’s my goal, exactly that!” Taub, who plays Paul, said from her dressing room later. “Do everything I can to make you fall in love with these women, root for them, care about them. So that was a really satisfying moment to witness.”
Satisfying but sobering, too. Fact is, few audience members know much about the American suffrage movement. So the all-female creative team behind “Suffs,” which had a high-profile off-Broadway run and opens Thursday on Broadway with extensive revisions, knows they’re starting from zero.
It’s an opportunity, says Taub, who studied social movements — but not suffrage — at New York University. But it’s also a huge challenge: How do you educate but also entertain?
One member of the “Suffs” team has an especially poignant connection to the material. That would be producer Hillary Clinton.
She was, of course, the first woman to win the US presidential nomination of a major party, and the first to win the popular vote. But Clinton says she never studied the suffrage movement in school, even at Wellesley. Only later in life did she fill in the gap, including a visit as first lady to Seneca Falls, home to the first American women’s rights convention some 70 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the vote.
“I became very interested in women’s history through my own work, and writing and reading,” Clinton told The Associated Press. And so, seeing “Suffs” off-Broadway, “I was thrilled because it just helps to fill a big gap in our awareness of the long, many-decades struggle for suffrage.”
It was Taub who wrote Clinton, asking her to come on board. “I thought about it for a nanosecond,” Clinton says, “and decided absolutely, I wanted to help lift up this production.” A known theater lover, Clinton describes traveling often to New York as a college student and angling for discounts, often seeing only the second act, when she could get in for free. “For years, I’d only seen the second act of ‘Hair,’” she quips.
Clinton then reached out to Malala Yousafzai, whom Taub also hoped to engage as a producer. As secretary of state, Clinton had gotten to know the Pakistani education activist who was shot by a Taliban gunman at age 15. Clinton wanted Yousafzai to know she was involved and hoped the Nobel Peace Prize winner would be, too.
“I’m thrilled,” Clinton says of Yousafzai’s involvement, “because yes, this is an American story, but the pushback against women’s rights going on at this moment in history is global.”
Yousafzai had also seen the show, directed by Leigh Silverman, and loved it. She, too, has been a longtime fan of musicals, though she notes her own acting career began and ended with a school skit in Pakistan, playing a not-very-nice male boss. Her own education about suffrage was limited to “one or two pages in a history book that talked about the suffrage movement in the UK,” where she’d moved for medical treatment.
“I still had no idea about the US side of the story,” Yousafzai told the AP. It was a struggle among conflicting personalities, and a clash over priorities between older and younger activists but also between white suffragists and those of color — something the show addresses with the searing “Wait My Turn,” sung by Nikki M. James as Wells, the Black activist and journalist.
“This musical has really helped me see activism from a different lens,” says Yousafzai. “I was able to take a deep breath and realize that yes, we’re all humans and it requires resilience and determination, conversation, open-mindedness … and along the way you need to show you’re listening to the right perspectives and including everyone in your activism.”
When asked for feedback by the “Suffs” team, Yousafzai says she replied that she loved the show just as it was. (She recently paid a visit to the cast, and toured backstage.) Clinton, who has attended rehearsals, quips: “I sent notes, because I was told that’s what producers do.”
Clinton adds: “I love the changes. It takes a lot of work to get the storytelling right — to decide what should be sung versus spoken, how to make sure it’s not just telling a piece of history, but is entertaining.”
Indeed, the off-Broadway version was criticized by some as feeling too much like a history lesson. The new version feels faster and lighter, with a greater emphasis on humor — even in a show that details hunger strikes and forced feedings.
One moment where the humor shines through: a new song titled “Great American Bitch” that begins with a suffragist noting a man had called her, well, a bitch. The song reclaims the word with joy and laughter. Taub says this moment — and another where an effigy of President Woodrow Wilson (played by Grace McLean, in a cast that’s all female or nonbinary) is burned — has been a hit with audiences.
“As much as the show has changed,” she says, “the spine of it is the same. A lot of what I got rid of was just like clearing brush.”
Most of the original cast has returned. Jenn Colella plays Carrie Chapman Catt, an old-guard suffragist who clashed with the younger Paul over tactics and timing. James returns as Wells, while Milholland, played by Phillipa Soo off-Broadway, is now played by Hannah Cruz.
Given its parallels to a certain Lin-Manuel Miranda blockbuster about the Founding Fathers, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the show has been dubbed “Hermilton” by some.
“I have to say,” Clinton says of Taub, “I think she’s doing for this part of American history what Lin did for our founders — making it alive, approachable, understandable. I’m hoping ‘Suffs’ has the same impact ‘Hamilton’ had.”
That may seem a tall order, but producers have been buoyed by audience reaction. “They’re laughing even more than we thought they would at the parts we think are funny, and cheering at other parts,” Clinton says.
A particular cheer comes at the end, when Paul proposes the ERA. 
“A cast member said, ‘Who’d have ever thought the Equal Rights Amendment would get cheers in a Broadway theater?’” Clinton recalls.
One clear advantage the show surely has: timeliness. During the off-Broadway run, news emerged the Supreme Court was preparing to overturn Roe vs. Wade, fueling a palpable sense of urgency in the audience. The Broadway run begins as abortion rights are again in the news — and a key issue in the presidential election only months away.
Taub takes the long view. She’s been working on the show for a decade, and says something’s always happening to make it timely.
“I think,” she muses, “it just shows the time is always right to learn about women’s history.”


Gulf Cinema Festival celebrates region’s rising stars

The fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh is taking place this week. (Huda Bashatah)
The fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh is taking place this week. (Huda Bashatah)
Updated 17 April 2024
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Gulf Cinema Festival celebrates region’s rising stars

The fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh is taking place this week. (Huda Bashatah)
  • ‘We learn from each other,’ Omani director Muzna Almusafer says
  • Success of industry ‘enhances Kingdom’s soft power on global stage,’ Saudi director Musab Alamri says

RIYADH: Leading lights and rising stars from the region’s blossoming film industry have been gathering this week at the fourth Gulf Cinema Festival in Riyadh.

Among them is Omani director Muzna Almusafer, whose movie “Clouds” is in the running for a prize of SR50,000 ($13,300) in the shorts category.

Set in southern Oman, the film tells the story of a war veteran and widower as he navigates the crossroads of societal expectations and his values.

“It was a dream for me at the beginning, to write such a story … something very sensible, something very honest, something from my own life and what I encountered in my life,” Almusafer told Arab News.

“I don’t know if I will win, but I’m winning this,” she said. “I’m winning knowing you, knowing people. For me, this is an honor and this is a win itself.”

Speaking about the movie industry in Oman and Saudi Arabia, she said: “We learn from each other. It’s not about who is first and who is second. It’s about who can reflect better and who can say things better. And better is always depending on us as people, how we look at things and depending on the audience.

“As artists, we can teach people how to look at life from a different point of view.”

Two of the keys to the success of the region’s movie industry were funding and drive, she said.

“Funding is the first thing, because when you want to pay actors, when you want to pay a scriptwriter, it’s always money at the beginning.

“But then also your drive. It has to be lit all the time. You should have this fire inside you. You shouldn’t stop. Once you stop, you don’t have it. So it’s important that you continue and you know and you learn.”

Saudi movie director and critic Musab Alamri said the landscape of cinema in the region was changing.

“Previously, the UAE held the top position in box office sales. However, since 2022, Saudi Arabia has emerged as the leader in ticket sales revenue. Saudi Arabia now holds the top spot in the MENA region and ranks 14th globally in terms of revenue generation,” he told Arab News.

Where Qatar and the UAE were once the leaders in financial support for movie projects, Saudi Arabia was now in the driving seat, he said.

“Saudi Arabia has witnessed the emergence of significant financing opportunities, including the Red Sea International Festival Fund, the Cultural Development Fund, Daw Film and production support programs at the Ithra Center.”

The film “Norah” by Tawfik Alzaidi was an example of how far the industry had come, Alamri said.

The film, which received funding from the Saudi Film Commission under its Daw initiative, garnered a nomination for this year’s Cannes Film Festival in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, he said.

“Such successes highlight the significant impact of these programs in fostering the growth and recognition of Saudi cinema on the international stage.”

Despite a decline in feature production across the Gulf, the Saudi film industry was riding high, Alamri said.

“Throughout the past year and into the first quarter of 2024, there has been a monthly release of Saudi films in cinemas and on digital platforms such as Netflix. Saudi cinema has also gained prominence in international film festivals, with six Saudi feature films showcased at the recent edition of the Red Sea International Festival.

“This surge in Saudi cinema not only contributes to the local economy but also enhances Saudi Arabia’s soft power on the global stage.

“I anticipate that within the next eight to 10 years, Saudi Arabia will achieve self-sufficiency in film production, eliminating the need for direct government support. Saudi films will garner significant recognition at prestigious international festivals including Cannes, Sundance, Venice, Toronto and Berlin.”

Saudi actor Baraa Alem said government initiatives, local and regional film festivals and the rise of independent filmmakers had all contributed to the “cultural richness” of the region’s movie industry.

The recognition received by movies like “Norah” and “Four Daughters,” which was supported by the Red Sea Fund and nominated for an Academy Award, was evidence of “that hard work,” he said.

Speaking about the Gulf Film Festival, he said: “By providing a forum for filmmakers, industry professionals and audiences to connect and engage, the festival not only celebrates the region’s cinematic achievements but also stimulates dialogue, creativity and innovation … (and contributes) to the continued growth and development of the Gulf film industry.

“As filmmakers from the gulf we share similar cultural values and identities.”

The festival ends on Thursday.