‘We’re going to develop local culture, local talent, build the emerging film industry of Saudi Arabia,’ says Hollywood producer Tarak Ben Ammar

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Updated 09 December 2023
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‘We’re going to develop local culture, local talent, build the emerging film industry of Saudi Arabia,’ says Hollywood producer Tarak Ben Ammar

‘We’re going to develop local culture, local talent, build the emerging film industry of Saudi Arabia,’ says Hollywood producer Tarak Ben Ammar
  • Arab producer who put Tunisia on Hollywood movie map tells The Mayman Show of plans to attract foreign films, develop local talent
  • Veteran filmmaker says creation of more foreign-language TV news channels will help bolster the Kingdom’s international image

RIYADH: For decades, Tunisian film producer Tarak Ben Ammar transported moviegoers into magical desert landscapes, from Tatooine in “Star Wars” to the shifting sands of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

Now, the veteran filmmaker has set his sights on what he says could be one of the film world’s next big locales: Saudi Arabia.

With a filmography stretching back to the early 1970s, Ben Ammar has been a part of blockbusters such as “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Scream,” “Equalizer 3,” and “The Passion of the Christ.”

The dozens of films he worked on employed one million people, and established Tunisia as a player in the film industry.

Aside from film, Ben Ammar also managed Michael Jackson’s HIStory World Tour in the 1990s, has served as an adviser to Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi, and is the head of Italy’s top independent film distribution and production company Eagle Pictures.

Ben Ammar said he saw the potential of Saudi Arabia as a film hub on noticing the success of his movies, particularly “Equalizer 3,” in the Kingdom.

“I did the research on the box office of that movie,” he told The Mayman Show, the Arab News podcast that features personal conversations between my host and my guests.

“You had England, UK, Germany, France, Australia, and then Saudi Arabia. So outside of the US, Saudi Arabia is becoming the place to be for my industry.

“That’s why ... I will be involved. To attract, of course, foreign films to come into Saudi Arabia but also to develop local Saudi culture, to develop local Saudi talent.”




Tarak Ben Ammar told The Mayman Show host Hussam Al-Mayman how lessons learned through his work on some of the biggest films in cinematic history could be applied to Saudi Arabia. (AN Photo)

More specifically, Ben Ammar said: “If a ‘Star Wars’ comes here, we will help you with tax credits. You have to employ locals.

“I employed a million people in my country by imposing in every department a technician. So, when they leave, they leave behind their knowhow so that those young people will know what a big film is.”

Speaking of Saudi Arabia, he said the country “has 38 million people; it has its own market. It has a youth that is hungry to be entertained, to create. Because, you know, there was a moment when if you were a young 18-year-old girl or boy and you want to be a painter, a musician, a writer, a singer, a director, or an actor, what did you do? You had to go to London, to Paris, to America.”

He added: “You are blessed by having a young population. And that’s why I said to myself — wait, this is a great market. I have to come here and invest.

“Usually, people come to Saudi Arabia to take your money. I am coming to invest in your country. Invest my knowhow, my knowledge, my name, my credentials, and bringing with me people who say, ‘This is what we’re going to be doing.’ We’re going to build the emerging industry of Saudi Arabia.”

Though potential tax incentives and rebates for filmmakers are certainly a reason for its allure, Ben Ammar says his plans for the Saudi film industry may be different to what he has done in Tunisia or elsewhere.

“The rebates are not enough,” he said on the Arab News podcast The Mayman Show. “First and foremost, I am not obsessed with bringing Hollywood to Saudi Arabia. That’s a very small part.

He pointed out that in Saudi Arabia, and indeed the entire Middle East region, American and Egyptian movies dominate the market.

“Today, you have, let’s say, 50-50, American and Egyptian movies. If we can lower that and make it 40 percent American, 40 percent Egyptian and 20 percent Saudi, then you have new filmmakers, new actors, new musicians, new directors, new writers, that then will sell Saudi Arabia more than just to come here and make movies.”




Tarak Ben Ammar during a tour of the Arab News HQ in Riyadh. (AN Photo)

A burgeoning Saudi film industry may also address the issue of Arab representation in Hollywood, he said, explaining that at a certain point in film history, Arabs became classic villain archetypes.

“It was always the Arabs with the Palestinian keffiyeh. Well, of course, because of the Six-Day War, the ’73 War, and Hollywood being very pro-Israel — it still is — so the terrorist was an Arab,” he said.

“We are the ones that need to help films get made where the story is different. The narrative of my cousins, my Arab cousins and brothers, in stories should be different. But it’s happening. We’re seeing different stories about Arabs. I have made a few movies of that myself. So, I’m optimistic that we’re not in the category still of the bad guys, I think.

“And if we become partners in this market — you want to come to our market, you treat us well.”

Ben Ammar said that the creation of more foreign-language news channels, such as many other countries have done with Russia Today, BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera, will also help bolster the Kingdom’s international image.

“The Kingdom just won Expo and the World Cup,” he said, referring to the 2030 World Expo and the men’s football 2034 World Cup.

“Of course, you would want television to reflect why you won the Expo, why you won the World Cup. There’s people here that know what they’re doing and are selling the Kingdom and its culture and its evolution.”

Ben Ammar’s dream as a young, up-and-coming filmmaker has a personal and emotional connection to the Kingdom through his uncle, the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba.

“And Tunisia owed a lot to Saudi Arabia, because when he was in exile and fighting the French for independence, the Kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud (King Abdulaziz) helped us; helped him. The Saudi culture was very much in my heart,” he said.

He said one of the first films he wanted to make was about King Abdulaziz.

“It was the early 1970s, and Saudi Arabia certainly was not the Saudi Arabia I had discovered, but the shock was starting in 2016 when I saw what it was becoming. I was privileged to have met the crown prince and to see the vision,” he said.




The dozens of films Tarak Ben Ammar worked on employed one million people, and established Tunisia as a player in the film industry. (AN Photo)

Ben Ammar’s determination to help further develop culture in the Middle East was sparked by an event in 2009, when he traveled to the Abu Dhabi Film Conference to be its keynote speaker.

“As I was landing, I read an article that disturbed me greatly. It said: ‘The Middle East will be acquiring hundreds of billions of dollars of armaments in the next 20 years.’”

He went on to give a speech, saying: “A nation without a culture is nothing more than a supermarket of consumers. A nation without a past really has no future.”

In 2018, Ben Ammar said, he was approached by Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, who asked him to lend his expertise to the strengthening of the Saudi film industry.

“In coming here, I saw the evolution of the multiplexes, the films, and last month I was here for a conference on the film commission,” he said.

Ben Ammar also spoke about his experience in bringing feature films such as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” to his home country, and how that experience could be applied to Saudi Arabia.

“When I started my career in Tunisia, we didn’t have a market,” he said.

“You, here, have an advantage, if I may compare, the Saudi model should be exactly what South Korea did. Look at South Korea. They created their own business, their own music, their own directors, their own TV series. And then they started exporting because they trained their people.”

The Korean film industry has been increasingly successful in recent years, with series such as “Squid Game” becoming international smash hits. In 2019, the Korean film “Parasite” made history by being the first non-English language film to win an Oscar for Best Picture.

“It wasn’t made to be exported. It was a Korean movie, a beautiful one that conquered the world,” Ben Ammar said.

“Maybe in my lifetime I will see a Saudi movie do the same, to make us Arabs proud as the Koreans were proud of ‘Parasite.’”

 


JIAT investigation clears coalition forces of aerial targeting in Yemen

JIAT investigation clears coalition forces of aerial targeting in Yemen
Updated 20 sec ago
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JIAT investigation clears coalition forces of aerial targeting in Yemen

JIAT investigation clears coalition forces of aerial targeting in Yemen
  • Regarding the At-Tuhayta allegation, after analyzing coalition air missions on that day, JIAT found no evidence of operations in the Hodeidah governorate
  • JIAT also confirmed that Saqeen General Hospital, in the western part of Saada governorate, is on the coalition forces’ no-strike list

RIYADH: The Joint Incidents Assessment Team on Monday issued a statement regarding the allegation of the targeting of a residential area in At-Tuhayta city in Hodeidah governorate, Yemen, on Nov. 12, 2021, in which a man and three children were killed, and two men injured.

After examining various documents, including air tasking orders, mission schedules, and satellite images, JIAT concluded that the claimed location lacked specific coordinates.

Analyzing coalition air missions on that day, JIAT found no evidence of operations in the Hodeidah governorate. Similarly, missions on Nov. 11 and Nov. 13 that year showed no activity in the area.

In a press conference in Riyadh, JIAT spokesman Mansour Al-Mansour also addressed another allegation that coalition forces targeted the Saqeen General Hospital in Saada governorate on May 30, 2015.

After evaluating various sources, including a Doctors for Human Rights report from March 2020 which claimed that coalition aircraft carried out two airstrikes on the hospital and severely damaged it, JIAT conducted a thorough investigation.

Al-Mansour explained that this involved examining air tasking orders, mission schedules, post-mission reports, satellite images, open sources, the National Information Center’s website listing health centers, the coalition forces’ no-strike list, and focusing on international humanitarian law.

JIAT confirmed that Saqeen General Hospital is in the western part of Saada governorate and was on the coalition forces’ no-strike list.

The closest military target hit by coalition forces on May 30, 2015, was 13 km away from the hospital, the Iran-backed Houthi militia receiving a hit from a guided bomb.

By studying the daily mission schedule, JIAT found that on the previous day, coalition forces had carried out an air mission on a target 7,000 meters away from the hospital, using one guided bomb that hit its target. No air missions targeted Saqeen on May 31, 2015.

Specialists studied satellite images of the hospital and found no trace of damage caused by aerial targeting on the main building or its annexes.

JIAT also addressed an incident in a Bani Makki residential area of the Midi district in Hajjah governorate on June 29, 2021, in which one person was killed and two others injured.

JIAT found that forces carried out an air mission on a military target on that date. A vehicle carrying arms for the Houthis in Abs was hit by a guided missile.

The coalition forces did not carry out any missions the previous day or in the following 24 hours.

Specialists studied satellite images of the military target’s location and found that it was about 1,500 meters away from the nearest residential area.

JIAT confirmed that the vehicle, a light truck, was seen underneath a tree and the missile recorded a direct hit.

Al-Mansour said: "There is indeed international cooperation and communication with international organizations; if they have representatives, they may provide us with information."

Concerning allegations or claims that have not been addressed, he outlined the current process: "Based on the team's (Joint Incidents Assessment Team) classification of an allegation, we initiate the investigation procedures and review the results," explained Al-Mansour.

"Some organizations cooperated with us by providing information, while others did not have information, and some pledged to furnish us with the required information," he added.


Warnings issued after NCM forecasts thunderstorms, heavy rain

Warnings issued after NCM forecasts thunderstorms, heavy rain
Updated 04 March 2024
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Warnings issued after NCM forecasts thunderstorms, heavy rain

Warnings issued after NCM forecasts thunderstorms, heavy rain
  • NCM forecasts inclement weather in some parts of the Kingdom until Tuesday
  • Civil Defense calls on everyone to take caution and adhere to its instructions

RIYADH: People are warned to be careful after the National Centre of Meteorology forecast inclement weather in some parts of the Kingdom until Tuesday.

The Civil Defense Directorate said: “Forecasts from the NCM indicate heavy rains in the Riyadh region, including the capital Riyadh, Diriyah, Afif, Dawadmi, Al-Quway’iyah, Al-Aflaj, Hotat Bani Tamim, Al-Hareeq, Al-Zulfi, Al-Ghat, Shaqraa, Al-Majma’ah, Al-Muzahimiyah, Rumah, Marat (and) Huraymila from Sunday.

“The Civil Defense calls on everyone to take caution and adhere to its instructions. Your cooperation is needed. Your safety is our goal.”

The authority has previously warned residents against crossing flowing valleys and canyons as this can be dangerous with potentially fatal consequences.

The NCM has said most regions will experience cloudy weather, thunderstorms and rain until Tuesday.

It has issued warnings of moderate thunderstorms accompanied by strong winds reaching speeds of over 50 km per hour, leading to hailstorms, sandstorms and high waves along coastal areas. This is expected to affect the Jazan, Baha and Asir regions.

The Makkah and Madinah regions are expected to experience light to moderate rainfall.

The forecasts also indicate that some areas will remain overcast and wet until the weekend.

Riyadh had hazy sunshine on Monday. The minimum recorded temperature was 14 C, and the maximum was 27 C.


Saudi project clears 669 Houthi mines in Yemen

Saudi project clears 669 Houthi mines in Yemen
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi project clears 669 Houthi mines in Yemen

Saudi project clears 669 Houthi mines in Yemen
  • The explosives, which were planted indiscriminately by the Houthis across Yemen, posed a threat to civilians, including children, women and the elderly

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia’s Project Masam cleared 669 mines in Yemen — which had been planted by the Houthi militia — between Feb. 24 and March 1, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Overseen by the Kingdom’s aid agency KSrelief, the project’s special teams destroyed 537 items of unexploded ordnance, 109 anti-tank mines, and 23 anti-personnel mines.

The explosives, which were planted indiscriminately by the Houthis across Yemen, posed a threat to civilians, including children, women and the elderly.

Project Masam is one of several initiatives undertaken by Saudi Arabia at the request of King Salman, which has cleared routes for humanitarian aid to reach the country’s citizens.

The demining operations took place in Marib, Aden, Jouf, Shabwa, Taiz, Hodeidah, Lahij, Sanaa, Al-Bayda, Al-Dhale and Saada.

A total of 434,002 mines have been cleared since the start of the initiative in 2018, according to Ousama Al-Gosaibi, the project’s managing director.

These include 275,891 items of unexploded ordnance, 143,621 anti-tank mines, 8,001 improvised explosive devices, and 6,489 anti-personnel mines.

The initiative trains local demining engineers and provides them with modern equipment. It also offers support to Yemenis injured by the devices.

About 5 million people have been forced to flee their homes since the beginning of the conflict in Yemen, many of them displaced by the presence of land mines.

Masam teams are tasked with clearing villages, roads and schools to facilitate the safe movement of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The project’s contract was extended for another year in June 2023 at a cost of $33.29 million.


Saudi crown prince congratulates newly elected prime minister of Pakistan

Saudi crown prince congratulates newly elected prime minister of Pakistan
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi crown prince congratulates newly elected prime minister of Pakistan

Saudi crown prince congratulates newly elected prime minister of Pakistan

RIYADH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman has congratulated Mohammed Shahbaz Sharif, on the occasion of being sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The Crown Prince sent a cable to Sharif on Monday expressing “his sincere congratulations and best wishes for success and prosperity for his country, and for the brotherly people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, further progress and prosperity,” the Saudi Press Agency reported. 

Pakistan’s newly elected lower house of parliament on Sunday elected Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister for a second time, putting him back in a role he had stepped down from ahead of general elections on Feb. 8. 

Sharif, the candidate for his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and coalition allies, secured a comfortable win over Omar Ayub Khan of the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former PM Imran Khan.


Saudi civil defense joins search and rescue exercise in Tunisia

Saudi civil defense joins search and rescue exercise in Tunisia
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi civil defense joins search and rescue exercise in Tunisia

Saudi civil defense joins search and rescue exercise in Tunisia

RIYADH: The Saudi General Directorate of Civil Defense is taking part in a collaborative mission with the Kingdom’s search and rescue team in Tunisia.

The White Operation Hypothesis exercise is being held until March 7, reported the Saudi Press Agency, and underlines the ongoing cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Tunisia in civil protection and defense.

It aims to use hands-on experience to bolster the capabilities and knowledge base of the international search and rescue team.

The exercise features various simulated scenarios involving rubble and water, providing an opportunity for valuable practical training.