Cairo: Saudi Filmmakers Tout Public and Private Support for Burgeoning Biz, Look for ‘New Dialogue’ on Taboo Subjects

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Just days before the curtain rises on the second edition of the Red Sea Film Festival, which takes place Dec. 1 – 10 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saudi filmmakers were out in force this week at the Cairo Film Festival, where they sought to highlight the rapid strides being taken by their country’s burgeoning screen industry.

Abduljalil Al-Nasser, general manager of sector development and investment at the Saudi Film Commission, praised the combination of public support and private equity pouring into the industry during a panel moderated by film critic Jay Weissberg. “There is now a serious commitment to make the film industry in Saudi Arabia happen,” he said.

Characterizing the rapid growth as “unprecedented even around the world” and pointing to seismic shifts in everything from talent development and production to distribution and exhibition, Al-Nasser added: “What Saudi filmmakers have been trying to do over many years, and they’ve been struggling to do over many years, now is finally being embraced, is finally supported and finally has a platform.”

First-time director Mohamed Al-Salman, who is one of many emerging Saudi filmmakers who got their start creating short-form content for YouTube, credited the country’s burgeoning infrastructure with “help[ing] those who were experimenting on their own,” and giving a formal shape to the fast-growing film business.

The results can be seen on screen, where “this year we will have a new record number of feature films produced by Saudi Arabia,” said the director, whose coming-of-age comedy “Raven Song” was chosen as the country’s contender in the 2023 international Oscars race.

Though the venerable Cairo Film Festival is hosting its 44th edition this week, the Red Sea festival made a splash with its star-studded inaugural event in 2021, and has quickly established itself as a key stop on the Arab fest circuit, with Oliver Stone tapped to head the main jury next month.

The Red Sea Film Festival held a star-studded first edition in 2021. Credit: Red Sea Film Festival

The festival is also throwing its considerable financial muscle behind efforts to support Saudi and Arab filmmakers through initiatives like its Red Sea Fund, which manages $14 million to support the production and post-production of projects by directors from the Arab world and Africa.

Another festival offshoot, the Red Sea Lodge, offers an intensive 10-month professional training program open to Saudi and Arab filmmakers that culminates in two projects receiving $100,000 production prizes, a grant and an Arab premiere at the Saudi fest.

Meanwhile, the introduction of a cash rebate of up to 40% earlier this year underscores the government’s determination to lure international TV and film productions and turn the kingdom into a global entertainment industry player. A raft of sound stages and production facilities has followed in its wake.

Global and regional streaming platforms, such as Dubai’s MBC-backed Shahid VIP platform and Hong Kong-based streaming service Viu, are giving the industry a boost by investing in premium local content in their push for local subscribers. Netflix, meanwhile, unveiled a slate of new productions from the region last month, including the Saudi feature “Alkhallat+”, which is part of an eight-picture pact the streamer inked with Saudi production outfit Telfaz11 in 2020.

Hana Al-Omair, who is the director and co-writer of “Whispers,” the first Netflix Original from Saudi Arabia, noted that an all-hands-on-deck mentality has taken root amongst Saudi filmmakers, who are taking up key posts at the policy level rather than leave the work to bureaucrats. Among them is director Abdullah Al Eyyaf Al-Qahtani, who is the CEO of the Saudi Film Commission, while Al-Omair herself heads the Saudi Cinema Association.

“[Filmmakers] need to build this infrastructure. We need to establish an industry,” she said. “We know the problems more than anybody, because we’ve been dreaming about this. The dream is coming true.”

“Whispers” was the first Netflix Original from Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Netflix

Perhaps the most promising sign has been the meteoric rise of the exhibition industry in the Saudi kingdom, which opened its first commercial movie theater in more than three decades in 2018, after the government put an end to a 35-year ban on cinemas. Previous regimes had considered moviegoing a threat to religious and cultural identity.

After grossing $112 million in 2019, the Saudi box office defied the COVID-19 pandemic and more than doubled to $238 million by 2021, making it the top market in the Middle East. By 2024, research firm Omdia estimates there will be 1,400 screens in the kingdom — a staggering achievement in just over five years.

The third season of “Takki,” a popular YouTube series, launched on Netflix in 2021.

While Hollywood’s often contentious relationship with Saudi censors underscores the limits to free speech in the conservative Muslim kingdom, the filmmakers in Cairo nevertheless said a cultural shift is underway.

Perhaps one bellwether for where the Saudi industry goes from here is the youth drama series “Takki,” which began as a popular YouTube series a decade ago but grew more daring in addressing provocative social issues with its third season, which aired on Netflix in 2021 — a shift Weissberg described as “really quite extraordinary.”

“I think if you look at the red lines and the taboos three months ago, or six months ago, it is changing,” said Al-Nasser, “and this is something that will change organically until we reach a state where the filmmakers know exactly where the red lines are.” He added: “Every once in a while, there will be films that push a little bit further, and it will open a new dialogue.”