Saudi filmmakers eye return of the silver screen


Saudi actress Ahd Kamel arrives for the closing ceremony of the Dubai International Film Festival in Dubai on December 13th. [Ammar Abd Rabbo/DIFF/AFP]

Saudi actress Ahd Kamel arrives for the closing ceremony of the Dubai International Film Festival in Dubai on December 13th. [Ammar Abd Rabbo/DIFF/AFP]

Saudi filmmakers and major cinema chains alike are basking in the news the kingdom will lift its decades-old ban on movie theatres, opening a market of more than 30 million people.

At the Dubai International Film Festival on Tuesday (December 12th), short-film directors talked shop on a seaside veranda, the city's iconic sailboat-shaped hotel in the background. And Saudi Arabia was on everyone's mind.

Director Hajar Alnaim, who wore her national pride in the form of a green Saudi flag pinned to her black abaya, said she had been "shocked" on Monday to see her government had announced the immediate licensing of cinemas.

The first cinema is expected to open in March 2018.

The move is part of a modernisation drive by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seeking to balance unpopular subsidy cuts in an era of low oil prices with more entertainment options.

Alnaim said a Saudi government scholarship -- one of thousands of annual grants -- to study film in Los Angeles changed her world.

"I was not even able to convince my family to go to Bahrain and let me watch a movie before I went to the US to study film," she said. "My perspective has changed... my family's perspective has changed."

Alnaim says her short-film "Detained" -- about a Syrian asylum seeker under interrogation by US Homeland Security over the actions of her father -- offers a window into the Muslim perspective, and that of the West.

500 kilometres

One decade ago, Saudi filmmaker Abdullah al-Eyaf captured the longing of his countrymen for the silver screen in a documentary.

"Cinema 500 km" is the tale of a Saudi crossing his country's borders for the first time, just to see a film.

"It is funny, right?" remarked Hanaa Saleh Alfassi, a Saudi director taking part in the Dubai film fest. "We are ready for a long time for all these bans to be lifted."

Alfassi's own film "Lollipop" also tackles restrictions, legal and social.

She acknowledges that cinemas may start by screening "uncontroversial" selections, but she foresees the industry blossoming as Saudis become used to theatre-going.

"The cool thing about cinema is the film does not come to you. You are going to enjoy that film with strangers."

Cinema gold

Major cinema chains are clamouring to break into the untapped Saudi market, where the majority of the population is under 25.

US giant AMC Entertainment on Monday signed a non-binding agreement with Saudi Arabia's vast Public Investment Fund to build and operate cinemas across the kingdom.

It will face stiff competition from regional heavyweights, namely Dubai-based VOX Cinemas, the leading operator in the Middle East.

The CEO of VOX parent company Majid Al Futtaim, Alain Bejjani, said Monday his company was eager to expand into Saudi Arabia.

The company is "committed to developing Vox Cinemas in Saudi Arabia and (to) make sure that every one of our Saudi customers will have a Vox Cinema close to them where they will be able to experience what they have been experiencing outside Saudi Arabia -- in Saudi Arabia", he said.

Bejjani predicts that cinemas will be "the cornerstone of a whole new economic sector", generating jobs and developing Saudi content and talent.

Do you like this article?

1 Comment(s)

Comment Policy * Denotes Required Field 1500 / 1500

The market is respected.