How the Saudi Film Festival Played the Long Game to Success  

“You wouldn’t know it existed unless you were told directly about it. You weren’t reading about it anywhere. There was nothing. It was a very closed-door experience.” There’s little that bonds people more than a shared secret. Saudi-born American producer Todd Nims underscores this as he recalls his earliest memory of the Saudi Film Festival, the country’s first and oft-described “most local” event of its kind. 

Launched in 2008 in yhe Saudi Arts and Cultural Society (SASCA) — a small cultural center in the city of Dammam — in the beginning, it comprised just 80 or so filmmakers from across the country, a lot of them meeting for the first time after hearing about the gathering purely via word-of-mouth. The creation of the Dubai International Film Festival in 2007, followed by the Gulf Film Festival in 2008, also held in Dubai, somewhat jump-started the creation of Saudi’s own offering. 

“I met all the Saudi filmmakers at the inaugural Gulf Film Festival because I had a movie about Saudi showing there [the 2007 documentary Home: The Aramco Brats’ Story],” says Nims. “When I got back [to Saudi], I dropped by the film festival they’d told me about. But it was a very small thing. Because everything was just way different back then — it was a totally different scene from today.”

Of course, at this point there was one very stark difference between the UAE events and the one sparking in Saudi: In the latter, cinemas and public gatherings were still considered “haram” (forbidden) by the Mutaween, the country’s powerful religious police force. 

“We can call that ‘the dark time’ for cinema and art in Saudi,” says Ahmed Almulla, the festival’s founder. “We didn’t dare dream that our festival could last for long.” 

So how did a celebration of film form in a nation that had banned both communal celebrations and film screenings?  

“The festival started with the name ‘Saudi Film Competition,’ ” recalls its now-artistic director Ahmed Alshayeb, who joined the organization in 2015 after keenly witnessing its early days from the outside. As well as shrewd nomenclature, Almulla had managed to get some essential paperwork from the head of SASCA, authorizing putting his dream into action. 

“My first memory of that 2008 festival is of gathering with some of the young Saudi filmmakers and talking about finding the courage to screen the first film in public,” Almulla remembers. “And that meeting was when we made that decision to do it.”

And yet, after such an exciting and completely unpublicized start, a couple of steps backward were required. A Jeddah Film Festival was touted to start in 2009, yet too much media fanfare and talk of “flying actresses in” upset the nation’s conservatives enough for them to make a complaint to the government, according to Alshayeb. This led the Minister of Interior to draft a new order to prevent any events related to cinema or public screenings. “So then the Saudi Film Festival pulled back and didn’t happen that next year,” says Nims. “Not because it was shut down. But because Almulla was very careful about how he tread.” 

Playing the long game, the festival returned six years later in 2015 — even though cinema remained illegal in the kingdom until the end of 2017, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) brought in his series of reforms. 

“All the filmmakers that we met with wanted the festival to return,” says Alshayeb of what happened during the hiatus, a time when he was working with Almulla at a branch of the country’s numerous SASCAs. “But they were also saying it couldn’t be done, that it would be crazy. So we did it smartly: We didn’t face or challenge the community, we tried to be balanced. We didn’t even use the word ‘cinema’ anywhere. From then on, nobody was ever sure that the festival would happen each year. And when it did, it was a huge shock.” 

Its momentum mounted. From 104 Saudi film submissions in 2015, the ninth edition, which took place from May 4 to 11, accepted 230; and from 80 early-day attendees, today there are more than 16,000 with 500 guests, as many as the festival can afford to host. The fest also gifted five books each to attendees about the art of filming in the country. “Now we’ve created more than 55 [book] titles from day one of the festival in 2008, including 17 new ones this year which are also available in bookstores,” says Almullah. “There is no institution taking care of publishing books about cinema here. We also give 500 copies of each to Saudi libraries and host a series of programs for schoolchildren. … All the young ones are the VIPs at this festival.” 

SFF’s growth in stature and official acceptance was represented physically in 2019, when it switched venues to the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, known simply as Ithra, a striking structure resembling rocks rising from the sand near the oil hub of Dhahran. It also was the first year that nonreligious tourists were permitted to attend (as THR did, becoming the first Western media to do so).  

When COVID struck in 2020, the festival moved online and has remained so in tandem, with daily video clips and live streaming opening it up beyond its 16,000 or so physical attendees to the world outside. 

And while the organization may have foreign jury members and assists (for no fee) the increasing number of film crews flying in to shoot in the world’s freshest location, its focus remains, as ever, on supporting and advancing local Saudi filmmaking — so much so that Alshayeb politely declines to publicly recommend any single SFF-linked film because “all the filmmakers are family.”

“The core thing from our side is that we see films as a medium of communication,” he says. “We don’t have a long history in Saudi Arabia with film, as you do in the U.S., U.K. or Western culture. But Saudi Arabia is a big country, and we want to get to know our own cultures more. We can do that through film, and by developing the quality of our films.” 

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