BEIRUT For a country where theaters are banned, Saudi Arabia made a strong showing at the Gulf Film Festival, contributing 20 pix to the inaugural event, which was held April 13-18 in Dubai.
Although most of the films were shorts, Saudi filmmakers submitted two full-length features to the competition with the Kingdom’s first horror pic “The Forgotten Village” directed by Abdulla Abo Talib and the award-winning comedy by Mamoun Bonni, “Sabah Alil” (Good Morning Night). The film’s lead actor Rashid Al Shamrani took home a special jury prize for his role as a time-travelling truck driver whose intimate knowledge of Arab soap operas sees him re-writing history a la “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”
The two features are among the first generation of films shot by Saudi nationals, following the 2006 release of “Keif Al Hal,” which was screened in theaters across the region except for Saudi Arabia, where mixed sex audiences remains a taboo.
But industry execs attending the Gulf fest were optimistic about the prospect of the Kingdom lifting its ban on cinemas with the country’s first ever film fest planned this summer.
“The (Saudi) government is indirectly saying, we don’t mind showing films,” said Gianluca Chacra head of Dubai-based distributor Front Row Filmed Entertainment, during a panel discussion.
The opening of cinemas in populous Saudi Arabia would be seen as a major boost to the regional film industry, where indigenous pics only sell 50,000 tickets on average across the entire Gulf area, according to Chacra.
Saudi Arabia is the region’s most lucrative market with an estimated population of 27 million dwarfing the combined total populations of its cinema-going neighbors in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the U.A.E.
“If Saudi Arabia opens theaters, it’s going to be a big change in the region,” said Kuwaiti filmmaker Faisal Al-Duwaisan. “We will be able to have an industry — and a budget for our ideas.”
Aside from the screenings, the Gulf fest provided a rare forum for networking and discussion among Saudi filmmakers. Throughout the week-long event, large groups of directors regularly congregated in Dubai’s hotel lobbies, talking film into the early morning.
“When I first came, I didn’t know any Saudi filmmakers,” said Saudi helmer Abduljalil Al Nasser, describing his arrival to Dubai. “We don’t have any structured way to meet other filmmakers. I met them mostly in the airport.”
Al Nasser, 25, said the upcoming Saudi film fest to reduce apprehensions about filmmaking in the Kingdom.
“It’s just not accepted to see someone outside with a tripod shooting,” he said. “Having festivals will ease things. We need to send a message to the Saudi people and the government that we are here, we want film theaters, and we want to be part of this.”