Thursday, October 6, 2016

Saudi Arabia: In Theatres Soon

The World Is Starting To Witness The “Rebirth” Of Film In Saudi Arabia.

By: Brendon Embry
Produced and edited by: Olivia Miltner

Mehahi saw a comedy filmed screened in Saudi Arabia in 2012.
Photo courtesy of

One: the number of public cinemas in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the city of Khobar, there lies an IMAX theatre, the only cinema to open since the 1980s, according to Al Arabiya.

If citizens want to watch a film, they go to video stores or watch movies on satellite channels.

“As a kid living in Jeddah, there were video stores with VHS tapes of [Western] movies, but I don’t remember any movie theaters,” said Leigh Singer, a film journalist who also programs films for the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival.

But in a country where the press is restricted and oil is the blood that runs the country, the film industry is young and hungry.

Recent History

Before 2005, original Saudi films were as common as sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. Other than the occasional documentary, only Spike Lee got permission from the Saudi government to shoot a film in the country: Malcolm X, produced in 1992.

Lee told the Christian Science Monitor that only a second unit crew could get access because non-Muslims were not allowed in Mecca (meaning Lee and star Denzel Washington could not film).

Even though the film was never shown in Saudi Arabia, it did prove that the government allowed film to be an introduction to Islam abroad, Lee said.

“Regarding the movie industry and Saudi culture, I believe [if] the movie is not offensive to a particular person, culture, group, it will be fine,” Sumayah Abu-Dawood, a Saudi native and lecturer at King Saud University in Riyadh, said.

The Middle East Media Research Institute found that in 2006, The Rotana Company sponsored an annual film festival in Jeddah that lasted until 2009.

Wadjda is one of the first Saudi films screened globally.
Photo via Wikipedia.
In 2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour directed Wadjda, one of the first Saudi films to be screened at international film festivals. The film centers on the life of a Saudi girl who dreams of getting her own bicycle entering a Quran recital competition meant for boys.
“Having a little window to look into Saudi Arabia is important and films [like Wadjda and Barakah] are the way to do so."
Al-Mansour, a Saudi female, had to partner with a German production company to secure funding for the film since Saudi Arabia lacks the theaters to screen the film. Al-Mansour told NPR that she had to direct from a minivan because women are not supposed to be outside without a man. She would direct using a walkie-talkie, and though she found the experience frustrating at times, she thought the end product was rewarding.

“I loved Wadjda, it was a great film to expose me to the Saudi film industry,” Isona Admetlla, Cultural Manager for the World Cinema Fund, said.

The World Cinema Fund helps fund films from countries or regions with weak infrastructure for the arts, and it usually works with the Berlin International Film Festival to screen films from these areas.

“We don’t get a lot of submissions from Saudi Arabia … but it great to see movies come out of Saudi Arabia,” Admetlla said.

Even those who have no knowledge of the Saudi Arabian film industry let Wadjda be their first exposure.

“I know next to nothing about Saudi Arabian film … but I have heard of Wadjda and know the plot,” visiting Ohio University film professor Erin Shevaugn Schlumpf said.

A New Look at Saudi Arabia

Now fast forward to this year where a movie about dating, a mundane and often-used plot in American film, has created a spotlight on the emerging Saudi film industry.
Barakah Meets Barakah gives viewers insight into
everyday life in Saudi Arabia. Photo via IMBD.

Barakah Meets Barakah tells the story of a mild-mannered civil servant named Barakah, portrayed by Hisham Fageeh, who dreams of becoming an actor. He meets Bibi, an outspoken Instagram star, portrayed by Fatima Al Banawi. The pair clicks, while defying social norms in Saudi Arabia such as embracing in public and meeting a female without a guardian present.

“[Barakah] is funny, and the romance … is interestingly handled, while addressing the problems that young people face.”

Director Mahmoud Sabbagh satirizes the Saudi culture by pixelating what are considered “inappropriate” images such as tattoos for comedic effect. He also employed “guerilla” techniques while filming as he recounted to German online magazine Qantara.

Sabbagh was inspired to make these directorial decisions from his time working at a progressive newspaper in Saudi Arabia. At the paper, they had some ability to criticize the government, and he decided to use satire and humor to expose “absurdities” with the Saudi culture.

The film has been screened at international film festivals in Berlin and Toronto, and in late-October in London. Meanwhile, the film has garnered rave reviews from critics citing the humor and the willingness to challenge Saudi cultural norms.

“[Barakah] is funny, and the romance … is interestingly handled, while addressing the problems that young people face,” Singer said.

On the other hand, Saudis may not embrace it as much.

“The film industry is still in its infancy … it will create a debate inside Saudi Arabia community,” Abu-Dawood said.

One thing filmgoers might expect is the chance to see Saudi Arabia in a different light.

“Having a little window to look into Saudi Arabia is important and films [like Wadjda and Barakah] are the way to do so,” Admetlla said.

Similarly, Singer said these kinds of movies give viewers the chance to see Saudi Arabia beyond typical news headlines.

"Once one or two films make a breakthrough, then it could encourage others to participate. You live in hope.”

“It’s a huge opportunity to see Saudi Arabia when it’s not newsworthy. People there live their daily routines … on a personal level, it was interesting to see Jeddah since I last lived there,” Singer said.

But even with the recent success of Saudi films, the future of the film industry is still up in the air.

“There must be a political will to change, and the people need to change … that makes it difficult to make these films international," Admetlla said.

Abu-Dawood said the movie industry could be successful if the government allows theaters to promote movies.

“It is impossible to tell, there is always change…but I hope," Abu-Dawood said. "Once one or two films make a breakthrough, then it could encourage others to participate. You live in hope.”

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